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The Web – A Short Introduction

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – December 22, 2000

What is the Web? | What are the Characteristics of the Web? | Some Dates | Some Buzz Words | Some Links

This article provides a short introduction into the Web and presents some facts, figures and links. It was taken from the SAP Interaction Design Guide for Internet Application Components in the SAP Design Guild. It is presented here for your convenience and with minor modifications only.


What is the Web?

The Web (or Worldwide Web, WWW) as we know it today – a world-embracing information network – is grounded on two important inventions:

  • The Internet – a worldwide computer network
  • Hypertext – the idea of a universal network of linked documents, irrespective of their location.

The Web packages these ingredients into an easy to use interface, the Web page (or HTML page), which is displayed in a Web browser, such as the Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape's Navigator. This simplicity, combined with the universality of its ingredients, caused its success.

Web pages are based on HTML, the Hypertext Markup Language. This language was originally invented for structuring and describing content, not at all for creating sophisticated layouts. Hyperlinks – marked words or text passages – provide the hypertext facility for Web pages. The URL – a universal addressing mechanism – connects hyperlinks to other text passages. These may be located within the same document, or anywhere on the Internet, for example on a server in Japan, or New Zealand.

HTML was invented for the creation of linked text documents to be published and exchanged within the scientific community; but soon its capabilities were extended. Graphics were added to illustrate text documents; graphics can also act as links and and be used as graphical or pseudo-graphical menus.

Text and graphics with hyperlinks are the "core ingredients" of web pages. That is why many people still speak of "hypertext with graphics on" when they talk about the web. The multitude of information offered on the web – mostly text or illustrated text – is still the most important aspect of it.

But HTML, and thus the web, did not stop there. Tables not only added a "table feature". Web designers – a new species of designers – soon discovered tables as a useful tool for overcoming the layout limitations of HTML. Multimedia were also added – ranging from simple animated graphics to video, sound, and 3D animations. Somehow, the web evolved into a huge worldwide magazine (we use the term Web brochures for information-based Websites). This magazine is not static like a paper-based magazine – it is dynamic, colorful, sometimes even screaming, and ever changing.

From the perspective of designing Web applications, forms elements such as fields, radio buttons, checkboxes, dropdown lists, and buttons were an important addition to HTML pages, which actually marked the beginning of Web applications. These elements provide Web pages with a primitive forms functionality (compared to what GUIs can do), which makes it possible to create simple Web applications. These can, for example, be applications for ordering products, entering addresses, booking flights, and the like.

With the advent of Web applications, the idea of the Web as a commercial medium was also born – e-commerce became one of the buzz words of today. The Web as a commercial medium will change the business processes of today. It will introduce new and innovative ways of doing business. Developers and designers of Web applications are an active part of this exciting development. See below for learning some of the reasons why Web applications are developed.

Put together, the Web, as it is today, is a medium, which combines magazine and commerce aspects, or – put in other words – the aspects of information and functionality, thus blurring the distinction between text documents (or documentation) and applications and impacting how Web applications are designed.

The Web has in the meantime put on many faces: The Internet stands as a synonym for the worldwide, free, and sometimes chaotic exchange of information, while the Intranet stands for smaller information networks based on the same technique, but restricted to the use within companies or institutions. Portals are a new approach to combine information and functionality in a personalized electronic workplace – the Workplace is SAP's interpretation of this theme.


What are the Characteristics of the Web?

From the viewpoint of developing Web applications, the Web has the following characteristics:

It is a publishing medium

  • Hypertext with graphics and other additions
  • Publications can be updated in real-time

It is a medium for communication

  • Information can be exchanged between singular people, singular persons can address a wide audience (e.g. a hobbyist attracts other hobbyist to his Website by publishing his experiences of the web), and many people can contribute and retrieve information as a community (e.g. in a chat room or discussion board)
  • It creates communities – from open and fluid ones to closed and stable ones

It is a transport medium

  • It transports goods that can be digitized: data, mp3 music, videos, graphics, software, ...
  • It transports "virtual" actions: Orders, approvals, status tracking, ...
  • It provides a universal infrastructure for information exchange (HTML, browser)
  • It is universally available – even across system borders


Some Dates

  • 1945: Vannevar Bush envisions "Memex", a system of linked documents, based on microfilm.
  • 1965: Ted Nelson coins the term "Hypertext"; he sets out to establish a worldwide computer-based information network with his hypertext system "XANADU".
  • 1969: The American Ministry of Defense starts the ARPAnet (Advanced Research Agency Project Network), the predecessor of the Internet; it is a distributed network of computers based on the IP (Internet Protocol).
  • 1980ff: The administration of the ARPAnet is transferred to the National Science Foundation (NSF); shortly after this, the first commercial online services appear, but still use line-oriented terminals.
  • 1990/91 (first ideas from 1980ff): Tim Berners Lee invents the the web and its ingredients: the Uniform Resource Locator (URL), the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), which allows to display text and graphics in a graphical user interface on the Internet.
  • 1991: The NSF removes the restrictions for the commercial use of the Internet; the Hypertext Transfer Protocol appears on the Internet and becomes the WWW (worldwide web).
  • 1993: Mosaic is the first Web browser with a graphical user interface (Unix).
  • 1994: Commercial online services like AOL or CompuServe offer the Web to their customers – the rise of the Web begins.


Some Buzz Words

  • Browser, Web Browser: Program for displaying HTML pages and accessing the Internet
  • e-Commerce: electronic Commerce – commerce which is handled via the Internet
  • HTML: Hypertext Markup Language – a simplified tag-based language derived from a SGML for describing hypertext documents
  • HTTP: Hypertext transfer protocol – a protocol that is used on the Internet for transferring HTML documents
  • Internet: A worldwide computer network using the TCP/IP protocols (and other protocols like HTTP on top of it).
  • Intranet: An internal computer network which uses the Internet technology, but provides access only within restricted environments like company or institutional networks
  • SGML: Standard Generalized Markup Language – general markup language, which can be used to describe the grammar of other markup languages; is the basis for HTML and XML
  • URL: Uniform resource locator – Universal addressing scheme for the Internet and the HTTP – identifies the "target" for the hyperlink
  • Web (also Worldwide Web, WWW): An Internet service based on the HTTP protocol and HTML pages; provides an easy-to-use user interface for the Internet.
  • Web server: A computer which runs continuously and provides information and services to Web users (runs a server program)
  • Web application: Typically a simple application which is based on HTML pages and runs in a Web browser; casual and novice users should be able to use this application
  • Web brochure: A Website which primarily provides information (example: a museum Website)
  • Website: A set of documents and a Web server which provides information and services to the Web public; users enter a Website through a homepage.
  • XML: Extended Markup Language – a tag-based language based on SGML for describing the contents of documents; contrary to HTML, (1) new tags can be defined to extend the vocabulary of the language, and (2) contents and presentation descriptions are clearly separated.

You find many more terms explained in the SAP Web Glossary in the Goodies section of the SAP Design Guild.


Some Links

You find more links on the Links page in the Books & People section of the SAP Design Guild.


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