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Authoring invalid HTML - a key factor in the Web's success?


A few years ago I interviewed Ian Hickson, editor of the HTML5 spec. He inferred that the ability to author invalid HTML and have Web browsers silently auto-correct it is the reason the Web has been so "wildly" successful. Unfortunately, many people share his opinion, so it's time to dispel this myth and give credit to the real factors behind the success of the Web.

When did the Web become wildly successful?

There was no single event or date that signalled the success of the Web, but using models such as the technology adoption lifecycle, it would be reasonable to place the date around the year 2000, close to the heyday of the dot-com bubble. Web-based companies were constantly in the news and their stock prices were skyrocketing. This attracted enormous publicity to the Web and encouraged new groups of people to use it. This date is effectively like drawing a line in the sand, to exclude those factors contributing to the continuing (as opposed initial) success of the Web, which occurred after this date, such as blogging, content management, social networking, etc.

Key factors for success of the Web

The role of the US government
The US government provided the environment for the Internet (and therefore the Web) to flourish. Just as important, they did not limit freedom of speech too much on the Web and were not enforcing tax collection from online transactions in the early days of the Web.
Companies that provided PC to UNIX connectivity software
Early servers that made up the Web were UNIX-based. Client machines ran Windows, which at this time, mid-1990s, did not ship with TCP/IP, the networking protocol of the Internet. Companies like Hummingbird Communications, NetManage and WRQ provided businesses with the necessary software (TCP/IP, X Server, FTP, etc.) to connect Windows clients to UNIX servers.
Affordable and easier to use Web servers and development tools
In late 1996, with IIS and Active Server Pages, Microsoft made Web application development easier and more affordable to the masses. This enabled mid-sized companies to get into e-commerce and significantly lowered Web application development costs for larger companies. Active Server Pages was free. The next best application environment at that time, WebObjects from NeXT (now Apple), cost about $25,000. IIS came free with Windows server operating systems and was easy to setup. Netscape Enterprise Server was quite pricy and complex to configure.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
W3C provided the vision for the Web.
Availability and affordability of restricted content
Compared to other mediums, the Web offered content that was restricted elsewhere by availability (i.e.: sexual content), timeliness (i.e.: instant stock quotes) or price (i.e.: cost of books, newspapers and magazines).
The companies that took the risk of investing in the Web when it was still an unproven technology/medium played a key role in the success of the Web.

Was the silent auto-correction of invalid HTML by browsers a key factor in the success of the Web?

Up to the point when the Web became wildly successful, there were two major Web browsers, IE and Netscape. At this time, both browsers had poor error auto-correction and each browser had its own distinct method of auto-correcting invalid HTML. Developers found it extremely frustrating when an error such as missed quote would cause incorrect and different rendering in each browser and often prevented JavaScript from executing correctly. Without error feedback (browser error validation), it was very difficult to find the cause of the problem. Error feedback was something that was desired by the developer community, but instead the browser vendors invested in better ways of hiding errors from developers.

Did lack of error feedback make it easier for Web site builders to build Web sites? For a very small number of people, this may be true. But for the vast majority of Web site builders at the time, the lack of error feedback caused more problems than it solved. Developers adjusted to these problems by building Web sites that were labelled "Best Viewed With Brower X", because they could not explain why their Web sites, which contained errors, worked better in one browser than another.


By the year 2000, the Web was wildly successful. Its success was a combination of many significant factors including the role of the US government, availability of software to connect PCs to server computers, affordable Web server software and development tools, a vision of the future of the Web, availability of restricted content, and entrepreneurship. The Web became successful before browsers had good auto-correction of invalid HTML. The lack of browser error feedback often frustrated Web site builders and made their job of creating Web sites more difficult. So silent auto-correction of invalid HTML by browsers played no significant role in the success of the Web and may have caused more problems than it solved. The conclusion must therefore be that the Web would have been successful with or without silent auto-correction of invalid HTML.

Public comments

1. Posted by Rudy
on Monday 2009-11-02 at 21:55:26 PST

Another way to look at this is that HTML did not make the Web popular, the Web made HTML popular.

2. Posted by Jason Grant
on Tuesday 2009-11-03 at 13:22:43 PST

The web became popular because of HTML. It could have been even more popular if that HTML worked well in browsers, which it even doesn't do so today.

3. Posted by Dan Dorman
on Tuesday 2009-11-03 at 21:34:11 PST

MICROSOFT made web development easier? With IIS? And ASP? And nary a mention of Apache? O-kay.

4. Posted by Vlad Alexander
on Wednesday 2009-11-04 at 10:58:33 PST

Dan Dorman wrote: "And nary a mention of Apache?"

This article is about the factors that led to the initial success of the Web (i.e.: this is back in 1996/97, before open source software such as Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP (LAMP) was accepted by businesses). LAMP was key factor to the continuing success of the Web.

5. Posted by David S
on Wednesday 2009-11-04 at 16:29:24 PST

Thank you for this very astute and perceptive analysis. I think you are quite correct, although invalid code was perhaps a minor player in the success of the web.

Your belief that Microsoft made web development easier is correct: think FrontPage. Yes, now in 2009 we all get sick at the thought of that...but it really did usher in an era in which all sorts of software companies began to compete with MS by creating HTML editors that "anybody" could use, which I think was a precursor to Blogger, Wordpress, and the rest. In a sense, MS was the first company to see the potential in making web page creation available to "everyone."

I think another factor that coincided with the other developments you make note of, is that the general atmosphere of western society was heading towards "self expression" -- reality TV, game shows, more and more competitions of all sorts...a greater number of people in affluent countries had reached a point where material needs had been more or less met, and the next step has been for each person to not only be part of the "audience" of society, but to join the ranks of "creators." The internet just happens to be a perfect tool to enable this level of involvement from "anybody" -- and its relatively widespread availability in the more developed countries arrived just at the right time to meet the "movement" within western society.

6. Posted by Vlad Alexander
on Wednesday 2009-11-04 at 19:45:31 PST

David S wrote: "I think another factor that coincided with the other developments you make note of, is that the general atmosphere of western society was heading towards 'self expression'".

Good point.

7. Posted by Sarah Hall
on Thursday 2009-11-05 at 05:47:09 PST

this article has made me smile and there are elements in all comments so far that I agree with and some I disagree with. I do agree with Rudy, the web made HTML popular, one way or another a language would have been developed, also agree with Dan - whilst many may think MS (IMO) have made web development easier there is always an alternative view, which still persists. Browser development needs to come together to represent a united front, developers AND designers need to be taught tools/toolsets consistently and programs need to be developed consistently for web development to become "easier".

I think David's comments about western society are all generally noted and accepted - certainly all food for thought.

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