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What's The Greatest Web Software Ever Written?

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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