Sixteen years ago, I started out as the newest analyst at what was then called PC Week Labs. Most of the important technologies of the day (such as PCs, office suites, client/server networking and printers) were being covered by the more senior and experienced analysts. They "saddled" me with a technology that, while seen as kind of cool, wasn't perceived as important to enterprise IT professionals.
The technology? The World Wide Web.
This was obviously a lucky break for me, as I was able to start working with Web technology very early in its development. I was also lucky enough to work with then PC Week Labs Analyst Eamonn Sullivan, an early pioneer in building Websites and developing in HTML. In fact, Eamonn built and launched the original PC Week Website, one of the first publication sites to exist on the Web.
I think it's pretty safe to say that the World Wide Web is one of the most important technology developments of the last century-let alone the last 25 years-and one can make a pretty good case for putting it in the company of the most important technologies of all time. But within the history of the Web, there are plenty of individual technologies and products that deserve a lot of recognition on their own.
Probably the biggest is the browser itself. The early days of the Web were interesting, but things didn't seem that much different from Gopher sites of the time. However, once the Mosaic browser came out and revealed the potential of the graphical Web, a wave of new Web development was unleashed. The Mosaic browser still lives on today-its underlying code formed the basis of not just the Netscape- and Mozilla-based browsers, but also Internet Explorer.
Another important technology that can be traced to Netscape is SSL. Everyone knew that the Web had game-changing potential. However, businesses weren't going to be interested until they could use the nascent platform to make money. SSL-or Secure Sockets Layer-made it possible to build reasonably secure connections that let users and businesses buy and sell on the Web. Everything from Amazon and eBay to corporate use of Webmail would be impossible without SSL.
That said, while early Websites were great at displaying text and images, they were pretty stupid when it came to data and handling structure. The technology that helped to change all of that was XML.
XML brought some common sense and structure to the Web and made possible pretty much every new change in Web technology since. While some may think that HTML is still the lingua franca of the Web, in reality nearly every protocol, script and connection layer in use on the Web today makes use of XML.
One of the most interesting and refreshing things about the Web is the way that many of the most significant new products and technologies come seemingly from nowhere-usually created by small teams of developers and enthusiasts and not major businesses. This has been true of everything from Google and Yahoo to Facebook and Twitter.
Another example of this was the rise of AJAX and the GUI-based Web interfaces of the last several years. These technologies were basically created by developers who were able to take existing development and scripting technologies and use them to create graphically intense browser-based interfaces rivaling those of desktop applications.
This has led to an explosion in Web-based applications and services that have made it possible to carry out nearly any business or personal task with nothing more than a browser installed on your system. This will likely continue to the point in the near future where the Web is the operating system, not whatever runs on the hardware you use to access the Web.
But probably the most important Web innovation is the one thing that hasn't changed: It is still possible for anyone--using free and inexpensive tools and services-to put a new application or service on the Web and change the world.
Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.