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What's The Greatest Web Software Ever Written?

What are the 12 most important programs we've seen since the modern Internet began with the launch of the Mosaic browser in 1993? Check out our list, and see if you agree.

When it comes to story assignments, i get all the plums. Last summer, I was asked to wax eloquent on the greatest software ever written. No problem there--just pluck 12 worthy candidates out of the hundreds of thousands of software programs written since the dawn of computing history.

This time it's the greatest Web software ever written. This one's a bit trickier, mainly because the history of the Web is so much shorter. Rummaging around in general-purpose computing's dustbin, filled with 66 years of bull's-eyes, near misses, and clunkers, was hard enough, but at least it allowed for some historical perspective. The modern Internet, which started with the launch of the Mosaic browser on the World Wide Web in 1993, is a relative toddler. Looking at all the youthful endeavors on the Web and deciding which are the best is a little like scanning a class of unruly kids and deciding which ones will become great poets, engineers, and musicians.

AOL Instant Messenger
The safest thing to do is to start with the Web itself. As it was first implemented at the CERN particle accelerator site in Switzerland in 1990, the Web was a software program loaded on a server. As far as I know, Tim Berners-Lee didn't travel the world, Johnny Appleseed style, loading his software on every Internet server. Rather, he showed how, by following a few specifications and patterns of interoperability, we could get the Web to work everywhere.

Berners-Lee ruthlessly simplified the relationship between server and client, insisting on a few simple standards that would allow widespread information sharing. But when the Web emerged in 1991, it resembled nothing so much as a throwback, a re-enactment of the classic IBM mainframe architecture--powerful servers dictating screens to thousands of dumb terminals in the form of Web browsers. Users' interactions with Internet servers were likewise straitjacketed.

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So, before we could move forward in computing on the Internet, it was necessary to fall back. With its statelessness--no user context brought to server requests--and other restrictions, the Web erected serious barriers to sophisticated computing. But software emerged that worked around the Web's limitations and exploited its inherent advantages: simplicity, low cost, widespread reach. These are the criteria I used to determine the Web breakthroughs, the software that showed how the Web could really be used.

If we're looking for great Web software, why not start with Mosaic? It qualifies as a brilliant synthesis of what went before, bringing new utility to the millions of users coming onto the Web in 1993. But, alas, Mosaic was No. 6 on my list of greatest software ever written; no sense repeating myself.

SIMPLE IS AS SIMPLE DOES

The simplest example of what I'm talking about is Hotmail. Written in a combination of Perl and C, it wasn't necessarily sophisticated software. In fact, e-mail on the Web at first was downright clunky. "When I first heard about Hotmail, I thought it was a stupid idea," says Eric Allman, chief science officer of Sendmail Inc. and author of the open source code Sendmail, which powers about one-third of Internet e-mail transfers.

Hotmail launched July 4, 1996, signifying freedom from ISPs

Hotmail launched July 4, 1996, signifying freedom from ISPs
There would be things you couldn't do with e-mail on the Web that you could do with on-premises e-mail systems, such as change the name of an e-mail account or screen out spam. But Sabeer Bhatia, a recent Stanford grad, focused instead on what a Web mail system could do, using a browser window and its underlying network to offer free e-mail to millions.

Hotmail had one characteristic that marks excellent Web software. "The user interface was drop-dead simple," says Allman. Users didn't need to fill in incoming and outgoing POP server TCP/IP address numbers or jump through other hoops, as they would with the e-mail client Eudora. Millions took Hotmail up on the offer. Seventeen months after Hotmail was created, Bhatia sold it to Microsoft for more than $400 million.

In a similar vein, America Online launched a free service called Instant Messenger, and a new way of communicating was born. Instant messaging had existed previously on networked Unix servers as a way for programmers to stay up to date on a project's progress. Quantum Link, then an online service for Commodore 64 and 128 PCs, offered a network service called Online Messages. Quantum Link became AOL, OLM became IM, and the rest, as they say, is Web history.

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