Friday, June 3, 2011

Web As A Platform For Universal Access

Universal Information Access In Web 1.0

The next few posts will cover the evolution of the Web as aplatform for universal information access. As the Web has evolved from a web of documents to a web of applications, the Web Browser — the software used by the majority of users to view the Web has itself evolved from being a document viewer to an application container. Through the last 10 years,the focus has been on turning the Web browser into a platform for delivering interactive applications — witness the progress from XML HTTP Request (XHR) and AJAX applications as epitomized by Google Maps to the formalization of Web Applications in the context of HTML5. The focus of these posts is to trace the parallel evolution of the affordances needed to turn the Web browser into a platform for delivering adaptive technologies to promote universal access.

Browser-Based Access Technologies In Web 1.0

The 1990's saw the first attempt to build a browser-based software platform within the mainstream world with the ascent ofNetscape. Though that attempt fizzled out, it laid the foundations for much of what we see today in the form of Web Applications and cloud computing. In parallel, the accessibility world saw the development of talking Browsers — the first of these was PW WebSpeak from Productivity Works, closely followed by IBM Home Page Reader. Like the Netscape browser of the 1990's, neither of these solutions survived — and part of the analysis that follows is an attempt to sketch out how the world of Web programming has changed in the 15 years since.

Things to observe from Web 1.0:

  • The focus in the 1990's was on Web documents with small islands of interactivity created via HTML forms.
  • The document-based Web made all web interaction transactional, thereby requiring server-side round trips at the end of every forms-based interaction.
  • Extending Web browsers with additional functionality was hard — accessibility solutions built using the browser had to be implemented either as a browser plug-in, or by embedding the browser within your own application.

The final point above is perhaps the most significant reason for why browser-based accessibility solutions remained hard to implement — in that period, accessibility like Web Applications in general could not be implemented using Web technologies.

From A Web Of Documents To A Web Of Applications

The next article in this series will detail the transition from a Web of documents to a Web of applications, and analyse the consequences for building web-based access technologies.

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