30 years of the website: building web applications for the future

This is the second in a four-post series that honors the 30th anniversary of the website, as well as examines how we expect web infrastructure and user experiences to evolve in the next 30 years.

 When Tim Berners-Lee launched the world’s first website in 1991, few people imagined how society would be transformed by this new, acronym-filled world of WWW, HTTP, and URLs. Certainly, hardly anyone imagined that 30 years later, we would be using it to pay bills, shop for almost anything, and interact with friends and strangers alike. 

Although we currently use websites in ways that make them closer to applications than the traditional idea of a website, we aren’t consistently building them that way. It’s time we embrace a more dynamic mindset in how we approach web development, and consider the tools we need to get there. 

Modern websites are actually applications

Historically, websites were made up of static images and objects, but over the past decade, the web has become much more dynamic, interactive, and functional. Today, streaming video and user-generated content define the web more than static pages and slow loading times do. Many websites today are applications, and we should be building them as such.

But as the way we use the web has expanded, building websites that are interesting and sophisticated has become more difficult. Developers must meet the requirements of different form factors and browsers, but they need more reliable standards and powerful tooling to get there.  

Growing expectations demand a better approach 

Building a smarter way requires greater speed, performance, and scalability. Developers need architecture and tools that offer more control, customization, flexibility, and transparency — while baking in security every step of the way — to create a web that’s performant and innovative. We must stop relying on ineffective legacy tools and adopt those that are capable of the automation and resilience needed to create web experiences that can support today’s needs. 

Static websites require a minimal number of tools and languages for development, while most organizations use a sprawling number of tools to build and secure their applications. Since users don’t interact with the content on a static web page, things like authorization, privacy, and security are not as imperative as they are with applications. And whereas small changes to a static web page require you to only update the HTML code, all changes to an application require full recompilation and deployment. 

On the whole, applications are more costly and complex to build, and they take longer to develop, test, and implement. To build today’s websites, we need to move away from the tools we used to satisfy the simpler use cases of the past. We must be able to execute more quickly and efficiently without compromising performance and security. Leveraging evolving protocols like QUIC and HTTP/3 and investing in emerging technologies like WebAssembly are key to modernizing the internet and delivering improved digital experiences.  

And we have to keep the future in mind. When we build apps and experiences, we must think not only about what faster, better, cheaper, and convenient looks like now, but also what it might look like down the road, and how we can build flexibly for expectations we can’t yet imagine. Continuous evolution is necessary if we expect the internet to meet our future needs. 

Making these kinds of changes isn’t just one person’s responsibility — everyone has a role to play. Executives need to view developer and security tooling as essential investments and not settle for what’s simply “not broken.” Developers and engineers should advocate for what they need to make their jobs easier, faster, and safer. And the industry as a whole needs to adopt a new mindset, one that champions a future-facing orientation. 

While we don’t know what tomorrow knows, we do know that technology is only advancing and becoming more integral in our lives, and businesses need to prepare for it today.

Breaking the cycle

Today, the youngest generations have been immersed in the web since birth. They don’t think of a website as a closed system, where one scrolls and reads. Any experience that’s not immersive, seamless, and in real time will feel disjointed.

Developers must evolve to meet users’ expectations, and break out of the endless cycle of “transformation” that forces builders to start over as soon as they’ve finished. And while humans will always be fallible, and users and builders will always make mistakes, we need to design with that in mind and depend on tools that provide the necessary levels of flexibility and accessibility. We must allow people to make mistakes safely, so that if someone messes up it doesn’t open the door to something catastrophic.

By being forward-looking and having the courage to fail until we ultimately succeed, we can create a new web that’s as groundbreaking over the next three decades as it has been over the past three.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll dig deeper into how we should go about building the future web, and what we’ll need to get there. In part three of our series, we’ll discuss how we need to approach security to create a more resilient web.

Jana Iyengar
Distinguished Engineer
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Jana Iyengar
Distinguished Engineer

Jana Iyengar is a Distinguished Engineer at Fastly, with a focus on transport and networking performance, including building and deploying QUIC and HTTP/3. He is an editor in the IETF’s QUIC working group and he chairs the IRTF’s Internet Congestion Control Research Group (ICCRG). Prior to Fastly, he worked on QUIC and other networking projects at Google, before which he was an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Franklin & Marshall College.