Advances in web technology: what this means for you

The detail of this may not interest you that much, but it’s offered on the basis that the better informed we are, the better the chance that we can make good decisions. So here’s a simplified run-down on the different approaches to building web pages, and how these have changed and improved over time.

The intention is to explain not just the nuts and bolts, but how these technologies bring with them advantages of cost, efficiency and speed. In essence, this is about publishing, and how quickly/cheaply you – the website owner – can get your ideas up onto your website.

The table below is coloured to indicate progress from the ‘dark ages‘ of the web, shown in black, to the current, enlightened state-of-play, shown in lighter grey then white. Advantages increase as things move from top-left to bottom-right in the table.

Advantages brought about by developments in web technology
Fixed content & format
(no external CSS)
Fixed content with separate format
(external CSS)
Content management systems (CMS)
(external CSS & content)
1990 onwards 1996
and accelerating rapidly
and accelerating rapidly
Disadvantages to change appearance, the designer edits every page
to change content, the designer edits the relevant page
Advantages to change appearance, the designer edits 1 (CSS) file
you edit the content

At the beginning (stage A above) if you wanted to publish something on the internet, you needed to know HTML. Every page was hand-coded, with content and format all jumbled up together.

Then, around 1996 (stage B above) with advances in browser technology, it became possible to separate the content from the code that formatted it. This was done with a single file (a CSS file) which any web page could reference. This enabled web designers to change the appearance of a whole website by changing a handful of lines in a single CSS file, thus saving a ton of labour. Even so, changes to any of the content in these pages was still the job of the designer.

Then, around 2007 (stage C above), content management systems started emerging, enabling the owners of websites to edit their own content themselves. Although this still leaves the work with the CSS – and the configuration of the CMS’s behaviour – in the hands of the designers and developers (and probably rightly so), the advantages of this approach are truly liberating. After all, if your websites sells widgets and you want to change their advertised price, why should you ask your website designer to do this for you?

A new website done now (2009) won’t therefore be built using method A above: that would be folly. Most are now being built by method B, and an increasing number of sites are being built with method C. I anticipate that at some point in the future, method B will in turn become obsolete. The future is with CMSs - and not just for widgets.