The Legacy of Web Languages

by in Development on 30th Sep 2013 · 0 Comment

Compared to the web of old, the way we develop sites has altered drastically. We now have a wider array of languages, API’s, frameworks, and schemas than we could have ever imagined; but as our need for technology changes and evolves, older languages and formats are either replaced, improved, or fall into disuse.

Rather than feel sorry for standards that failed to make the grade, we’re going to examine the languages which have had a surprising impact outside of their web-intended specification. While some have led to software or browser improvements, the implications of dead languages in some cases have reached far beyond our industry.

The Influence of Superseded Web Languages on Current Languages

WML to HTML

Before the days of smartphones, WML was the markup language of choice. Browsing the web on a handheld device hadn’t yet taken off in a big way, and this was, in part due to this rather odd but simplistic language.

WML

Geared together with basic CSS support (don’t get excited, it was very limited) and WMLScript (it’s own variant of JavaScript), site owners could provide feature-phone users with simple content over a basic cellular network.

What happened to the language?

While WML continues to live on actively in some developing nations and low powered devices, and support for it exists within Opera, dedicated browsers, and plugins; it was superseded by the Mobile HTML specification. It has been further pushed out of favor due to mobile browsers becoming as capable as their desktop counterparts.

What is it’s lasting impact?

Arguably, it was this first experiment, providing Internet access on basic handheld devices, that encouraged cellphone manufacturers to push for a more complete browsing experience. Since that time, devices have grown ever more powerful and thanks to WML paving the way, we can now all be distracted by the web, wherever we are in the world. From one tiny language to mobile Webkit, that’s one huge leap forward.

VBScript to JavaScript

During the browser wars, Microsoft hatched a plan to counter Netscape’s superior support for JavaScript. In addition to providing their own interpretation of the ECMAScript specification called JScript (a version of this still exists within IE today); they offered a secondary, complimentary, active scripting language.

VBScript

This was based on the Visual Basic platform to extend the power of desktop development to the Web browsing environment.

What happened to the language?

Due to security concerns (having direct access to the system registry and disk), VBScript never gained support outside of Internet Explorer. As a result, during the web standards movement, developers were naturally inclined to favor JavaScript which was not only better sandboxed but also had gained a wider level of browser support.

What is it’s lasting impact?

While VBScript is unlikely to be used on websites today (Internet Explorer now restricts it by default), the scripting language has gained a fair cult following on the desktop as a task automator. Requiring no compiler and having support for old versions of Windows, this language has done more good offline than during it’s entire online career. Of course, Microsoft is now actively encouraging users to migrate to it’s successor, PowerShell.

P3P / PICS to Browsers

Privacy and online safety has always concerned web users. While no perfect solution currently exists, during the late 90s the situation was much worse.

P3P/PICS

In two of many attempts to tackle the issue, the W3C launched the PICS language specification which aimed to classify sites like movies or video games (so browsers could filter age-appropriate content), and Microsoft released the P3P protocol to police cookie usage by verifying their source.

What happened to the language?

While PICS was initially successful at adopting ratings providers like ICRA, SafeSurf, WebUrbia and RSAC, few developers took proactive steps to rate their content, leaving a huge gap for browsers to fill. In a similar manner, P3P suffered a lack of uptake, only to see Microsoft Internet Explorer give it any credible implementation. This undermined the specification as many questioned the real-world value it actually offered browser vendors.

What is it’s lasting impact?

In the case of both PICS and P3P, the lack of developer uptake has forced browser and software vendors to build dedicated pre-vetted solutions, eliminating the need for developer intervention. PICS sowed the seeds for family friendly browsers and parental control tools with content filters. As for P3P, it has led to browsers supporting cookie blacklists, whitelists and filters based on user preferences, directly within the preferences dialog box.

VRML to X3D

While it can be argued that 3D is the gimmick of the modern age, Virtual Reality was definitely the gimmick of the 90s. With movies like Tron and the Lawnmower Man exploring the concept of traveling through cyberspace, specification writers took it to the next level.

X3D

Using XML as its backbone, the Web3D Consortium developed the VRML language in an attempt to cash in on the craze for browser based exploration.

What happened to the language?

While VRML never caught the public imagination (possibly due to a browser plugin being required), a subset of the language (VML) became widely used in Internet Explorer as an alternative to SVG. While VML is gradually being phased out of IE support, VRML has been largely superseded by the X3D specification.

What is it’s lasting impact?

While rarely used in sites, VRML and X3D have gained a huge following in manufacturing industries. As they are both open standards (unlike many CAD formats), they can be easily shared online, and you can use the language to model anything from a new building to a piece of furniture. With the 3D printing revolution on the horizon, VRML could have further applications in the digital delivery of potential physical goods, very useful indeed!

Lessons We Can Learn

While HTML and CSS were destined to become superstars, those failing to achieve their goals have still left a profound impact upon the web and wider world. They may not be glamorous, well known, and in some cases, declared as botched experiments; but as the current generation of languages go in and out of favor, we can only be left wondering what future failures and deprecated dialects will achieve in the years to come.

What is your web design guilty pleasure? Have you found yourself using any of these languages lately? Did I miss any old piece of technology that should have been included? Let us know in the comments!

Alexander Dawson is a freelance web designer, author and recreational software developer specializing in web standards, accessibility and UX design. As well as running a business called HiTechy and writing, he spends time on Twitter, SitePoint’s forums and other places, helping those in need.