The Internet of the 90s
This article will be another trip down memory lane as I talk about the different forms of visual information that have evolved over the years on the Internet. I talked about the days of yore and how the Internet started off being slow. We started out with just text, just words on a screen. We had a few basic pictures back then, nothing really visually appealing. Just some logos that worked well enough, then we finally ended up with video when we had the infrastructure in place to handle it. So that is the topic of this article, going from just text, to images and finally video as media became more sophisticated and engaging. This will be an interesting look back at how we started at the beginning with very little. As we became more patient, the web became faster and faster every year. Sometimes the speed of the Internet would just accelerate and skyrocket. Then another advancement was made and progress would bring us closer and closer to where we are today. The speed of information is a central theme on this website and I would like to use the various forms of media to highlight how we were able to reach today so quickly.
Just Text and Images
When the Internet first came out there were only a few Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The most popular ones are AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy. I had Prodigy and I remember how you had to connect a telephone cable from your computer to a phone outlet. Then you had to call a number to connect to the Internet. When connected, there was an associated cost depending on what number you dialed. Also, there was this scratchy noise that the model made every time that you dialed that number. A lot different than now with Wi-Fi, where you are always connected wirelessly. The early days of the web were slow so we just had words on the screen with a few pictures. These images were just simple logos and other GIFs with very little colors. The images had to be small back then because the Internet was too slow to serve the beautiful large photographs that we have today. Back then, images were seen as a luxury since we really just needed text on a screen, just like a normal book. Some books have pictures in them but most of the story is told through words. The images are just there to supplement the story visually. The story was told mostly with words.
I remember how slow things were back then, I had those 33.6kbps and 56kbps models. Those units of measures are kilobytes per second. Kilobytes at those numbers are not much, so web pages had to be small enough in order to load fully. This is why there was hardly any CSS or JS back then, just HTML. The pages were static since the web was just starting to grow and evolve. No dynamic pages with a database just yet. All content was contained inside HTML files. There was no drawing of content from other sources and having to load external files like we have today. We really did just have text and a few images on a page. As the years passed, the Internet became more complicated as modems were able to handle large data transfers. This allows web pages to become more complicated. Then we CSS to make web pages pretty and JS to make them interactive. Then web pages looked a lot more animated and interactive than just a plain book. The first few web pages were just digital books. Books are printed material that once created cannot change because the pages in the book are already done. Whereas with a web page, the content on the page can change even after being published online. So early web pages were digital books that could change after creation. Then CSS and JS made web pages more than just a book. Later on, as data transfer limits increased, web pages became more beautiful with images that cover the entire screen.
Today’s Images: Larger and Higher Resolution
Once we moved past those old modems, we had cable, DSL and fiber optics. These allowed web pages to handle high resolution images captured on a camera. All of a sudden we went from very simple logo GIFs to high resolution JPGs and PNGs. These newer image file formats were larger in size, but contained a lot more color than GIFs and were therefore a lot prettier. Having higher resolution images gave up the flexibility to reuse and repurpose them into a lot of different formats and media depending on where the images were needed. This was important because we needed the ability to reuse the same images in several different places instead of having to retake the picture again. Sometimes in life, you really do get one shot at getting that perfect picture. We do not always get a second chance. This is why it is so important to be able to repurpose images that have a high resolution. Thanks to newer technologies that allow us to connect to the Internet faster and wirelessly with Wi-Fi, we are able to do that today. We should really take the time to appreciate what we have today and realize the limitations of the past.
The Web Gets Faster: Or Does It?
Seems like the web is a lot faster than before. Is it really though? Even though in general, yes, the web has sped up over the years, there are still a lot of issues with today’s speed. For starters, the advent of Wi-Fi was great. We no longer needed to run an ethernet cable from our computer to the phone jack. Especially since most people are mobile today and are no longer stuck to a stationary desktop. We move around with our laptops more today so being tethered to a cable is not an option anymore. However, the problem with a wireless connection like Wi-Fi is that the connection is not always stable and can sometimes weaken and disconnect. This is due to the simultaneous devices accessing a single Wi-Fi point at a time. Also we have to consider the distance between these connected devices and the range radius of the Wi-Fi. These are considerations that are different than when a physical connection is used. A single cable connects the device to a phone jack. That one-to-one connection is dedicated between the device and jack. So that makes the connection stronger than a wireless one without a physical cable.
Video Buffering: We Still Have Some Problems Here
Another issue with today’s web is that we are consuming a huge amount of media in the form of video, which I will discuss in detail later. For now, I just want to introduce the concept of data buffering and why it plagues watching streaming videos online so much. Even with today’s speeds, we still encounter a lot of wait time when trying to watch videos online. Very long videos take a very long time to load before they can be streamed. The problem here is that no one will wait for an entire video to load before watching it. Think of a movie that is a couple of hours long. This is why streaming was introduced. No one can really wait for an entire video to download. We want to watch it right now. So what happens is that only a portion of the video is downloaded at the start, just enough to start watching it. So while you are watching the movie, the rest of the video is being downloaded. This is great as long as the movie can download faster than you can watch it. Speeds can fluctuate and there are times when the download is so slow during streaming that the movie just stops playing and you have to wait for more of the movie to download before watching again. This is called buffering and can be a hassle to deal with when we think Internet speeds are so fast today.
Video: Flash Player
I want to take a step back and talk about how videos were served when Flash was still around. Before YouTube, videos were embedded onto web pages. This gave web pages more user engagement because videos were more interesting than just static images. Videos were animated and played sounds that could grab the user’s attention. Videos gave web pages a new level of sophistication that made them popular when served on Flash Player. During these days, Flash was really popular because jQuery was still new and many people liked the slickness that Flash had. The animations looked really nice even though Flash was really bulky since it was all contained in a single SWF file. Still though, with video being new, Flash player served its purpose really well and it was already used on a lot of websites so serving video on Flash only made sense.
Video: HTML 5
Flash had its time but eventually was not only replaced, but also restricted from being used anymore. The main reason Flash was used, is that it could make really nice animations. This included games, videos and advertisements. However, both CSS3 and jQuery replaced what Flash could do. Also, it was found out that the published Flash file, SWF, had a security vulnerability that made it unsafe to render in web browsers. So browsers started to block SWF files and it became too much of a hassle to enable Flash on browsers. So people stopped using Flash on modern websites and Flash was relegated to legacy support. Later on in HTML 5, the video tag was introduced to serve video instead of Flash. This was better because you no longer needed the raw FLA file anymore with Macromedia/Adobe Flash. Not everyone had Adobe Flash so it was easier to just use the new HTML 5 video tag. This way, we only needed the actual video file, which the most common video file format is MP4. This standardized video rendering because everyone could just use the video tag and eventually remove support for Flash. So the new video tag was keeping in line with the shift away from Flash. This was for the best because creating Flash players took time since you needed Adobe Flash. All that this did was add an extra layer to getting videos out there. We were finally moving on from images to video and we needed a better, more efficient way to render video. That is what the video tag was for.
Today’s Internet: “Blazing Fast”
I mentioned earlier about video buffering and how today’s speeds still have issues. Looks like we cannot keep up with our data consumption demands. We are just spending too much time online, always connected, always watching something that requires a lot of bandwidth. So much bandwidth, you wonder if we are reaching or will ever reach critical mass. High data consumption demands are not the only issue we are facing. We are also trying to get our websites found on Google. That requires our web pages to load fast and this is a tricky concept to understand because it is very nebulous. I say that because the algorithm that is used to rank your website on Google is not only not very clear, but always changing. Ranking high on Google is no simple task. Even though our speeds today can handle a lot of media on a web page, there is something that I would like to mention. We still need to be careful about serving too much media to users. A web page heavy with tons of images and videos is very hard to optimize to load quickly for users. Google will rank heavy and slow pages lower on their search engine. So we need to be mindful of what information we are serving to users. Otherwise, we might as well have just plain text only with no images or video. I just mention this because just because our speed is fast, does not mean we need to load up on media everywhere.
As Internet speeds increased over the years, we moved from just having simple text on a screen with low resolution images to beautiful high resolution images and video. Faster speeds let the web come to life as it became more immersive and engaging. This attracted more people to constantly be online as the wealth of information was at a point where its consumption was reaching newer and newer heights. Could we handle serving this amount of full and rich data. Buffering helped and so did the eventual rise and fall of obsolete and replaced Flash. We had another problem show up, being found on Google. No point in having a website if no one could find it. In order to be found on Google, good content plus fast web page load times were both crucial. Web pages with too much media on them are heavy and load slowly if not properly optimized. So here we are today, with an Internet that can handle so much data yet cannot because it is all for naught without being found on Google.