Rewind to early 1995. Netscape had just hired Brendan Eich away from MicroUnity Systems Engineering, to take charge of the design and implementation of a new language. Tasked with making Navigator's newly added Java support more accessible to non-Java programmers, Eich eventually decided that a loosely-typed scripting language suited the environment and audience, namely the few thousand web designers and developers who needed to be able to tie into page elements (such as forms, or frames, or images) without a bytecode compiler or knowledge of object-oriented software design.
The introduction of IE3 and its unfortunate lack of support for the document.images array led Netscape and Sun to standardize the language with help from the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA), giving us yet another name for what had by now become a strange hybrid of powerful and universally supported core functionality and often incompatible object models: ECMAScript. Standardization was begun in conjunction with ECMA in November 1996 and adopted in June 1997 by ECMA and by ISO in April 1998.
The nightmarish workarounds and multiple implementations necessary in order to provide cross-browser DHTML applications are legion. Some folks provided libraries that made Navigator act as much like IE as possible. Others provided libraries that made IE act as much like Navigator as possible. Everyone provided libraries that helped programmers wrap incompatible code with a consistent API, but soon found that the lowest common denominator required for truly cross-platform code was a bit too low for all but the most basic applications, and so many deserted Navigator entirely for IE on Windows, further fragmenting the Web into little fiefdoms of functionality.
While the browser wars were raging, Microsoft, Netscape, and dozens of other companies worked with the W3C to try to lay the groundwork for a truly universal Document Object Model (DOM), while staying as backwards compatible as possible with the original browser object model (referred to as "Level 0" by the framers of the W3C DOM). The desire to get the Web back on track as an SGML-inspired platform, where document structure encodes semantics but not presentation, fueled by the relative simplicity and power of XML, led to another layer of abstraction and several years of incompatible or partial implementations.
The open source Mozilla project took years without a stable or widely distributed public release, while Microsoft tightened its hold on the browser market share. DHTML programmers retrenched, for the most part, in response to the complexity of cross-browser DHTML, a new emphasis on standards support, and the rise of other tools for providing interactive content, such as Flash.
Steve Champeon is a recognized developer, author, and editor specializing in Web technologies. At his "day job," he serves as the CTO of hesketh.com, a Web services firm in Raleigh, NC.
Copyright © 2009 O'Reilly Media, Inc.