I have been a webmaster since 1995, and the journey never stopped. What are some of the acronyms that accompanied a webmaster from then to now?

I have been a geek since my childhood, and programming in BASIC on my pocket-sized Sinclair ZX-81, and later on Atari and PCs, accompanied me through many years then. Even in the early 1990s before the Internet became commercially available to us, I ran bulletin board systems (BBS) on analog dial-up modems. Some of you might remember what a screechy sound the dial-up modem makes every time we connect. It was the same period I used Compuserve, then the precursor to the Internet POP3 email we used later on.

On the Web, the technology to show web pages has evolved so much as well. The old static web pages with clunky graphics and layouts, and then the flashy animated websites that also went out of style, to the content management systems (CMS) we use today, are all roadsigns along my journey as a webmaster, as with some of my peers like you as well.

In 1995, I became one of the pioneering Internet hosting providers at my locale, handcoding every web page in a text editor, and using the rudimentary web browser as the test platform, and then using FTP to send content up to a shared platform in Australia. It was tedious to handcode in HTML (then version 2.0), but the excitement of having your own domain populated with content was like climbing Mount Everest to some of us then. There was competition among small startups like ours to pitch to companies to have websites, to persuade them that having a web presence was not a novelty but a marketing necessity.

By 1996, Macromedia Flash and Shockwave content began to show up on websites, then the best way to create interactive and animated content. The concept of a “plug-in” in a web browser became rooted, despite the fact that many people still browsed the Web on LYNX (a text browser) with no graphics capability at all. Creating animated content was a different paradigm, more akin to becoming cel animators than computer programmers, and it created yet another complexity for webmasters.

Then Javascript and HTML4 came along, cementing the reality that the Web is no longer a luxury, but something every commercial or institutional entity should have, as content repositories and brand billboards. Many websites were authored in complex authoring tools from camps like Adobe, NetObjects and even Claris, which created pretty Web pages, but sometimes at the expense of code readability.

By 2003, the tide changed again, and I had to re-look at my Web content creation strategy. It was no longer the best way to generate online content, even though handcoding yields the most compact code, which makes the smallest demands on bandwidth, and therefore is more user-friendly than complex code. Still, work mounted to the point that writing Web pages by hand was no longer viable for me, a lone webmaster. So I looked at content management system (CMS) platforms such as Joomla, Drupal and WordPress, and finally settled on WordPress.

10 years on by 2013, websites are more likely to be created on CMS platforms than other tools, simply because CMS platforms are open, extensible, and for many users, easy to learn and use. Because CMS platforms are databases, the need for security is heightened compared to static website content. Not every webmaster is proficient in Internet security and CMS platforms can become crippling to those who do not keep tabs on security and defensive technologies. Also by 2013, websites need to be responsive, which means the content should scale and adapt to any screen size, whether a mobile phone, a handheld tablet, or a desktop computer. Some of the recent CMS platforms offer native or extended capabilities to show a website intelligently to devices of different screen sizes.

From a long journey from 1995 to 2013, handcoded HTML yields the cleanest and lightest code, but can be difficult to maintain over the long haul. Only some oldies like me still tinker with handcoded HTML now and then.

Template-based design and authoring tools are still used, and the pages generated are static Web pages. The content can be very attractive in layouts and design, although if a developer does not have the same tool, then to edit these generated code using text editors would be very tedious for many.

The most complex and the heaviest code comes from CMS platforms. The generated code is still human-readable, but often too lengthy to be bothered with, except during troubleshooting perhaps. The advantages of CMS platforms as web content generators include sophisticated and extensible designs, compatibility with various platforms, pluggable functionality from typography, visual theme, social sharing, commenting, and so on. Such platforms often allow role scoping, so that users can be assigned different usage levels, from administration, to editing, to mere subscribers.

If you have traveled like me along much of the same journey, then you may have jumped onto CMS as your primary Web content platform. What makes good design on a CMS platform?

Responsive. More people use mobile devices than desktop computers today, and the trend will continue until the desktop computers become obsolete perhaps. Therefore, it is important to ensure that your CMS-based website is designed to be scalable to any screen size, whether by the native theme, or by the enabling of a plugin.

Fast. CMS platforms can seduce us so install every possible plugin for additional functionality. We can also be trapped by looking at visual themes one after another. And most of all, because CMS platforms are complex database platforms, the websites on CMS platforms would already be burdened with code that would be slower compared to static websites. Therefore, our first design consideration using CMS platforms is to ensure that we keep everything to the minimum, so that we can hopefully show as fast a website as we can to our end-users.

Clean. Keep our CMS websites clean, with as little manual customization as possible to reduce problems. The more complex something is, the more likely a breakdown may result. Test all the extended functionality as we wish, but we need to streamline those down until the best functionality is distilled down for speed and ease of maintenance.

– Chronological. Everything is a timeline. Human history is a chronological timeline planted in various locations. The emergence of social media and its eventual success, like Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and even earlier platforms like blogs, are also timeline-based. There is something intrinsically resonant with us humans about timelines. Therefore, when we think of the new web paradigm, simply look at the human historical timeline, and its modern cousins the social media platforms, and you know where your design should look like.

No one has a crystal ball to gaze into the future to know where or how Web technologies will evolve, or perhaps something completely different may replace the Web altogether. But until that happens, we webmasters will have to keep learning, keep trying, keep developing.

PS – Here is an infographic I drafted that briefly showed my journey as a webmaster.

Infographic – Journey of a webmaster (Seamus Phan, 20131116)