Demystifying Websites, Mobile Applications and their Future in 2021

What they are, how they function and what is in store for them

The many Internets we do not know of

The Internet does not have a single inventor to be identified.

Some of the most brilliant minds in the world of technology conceived and brought to fruition a “network of networks” called the Internet not overnight but taking decades, enabling its evolution. And it is interesting to note that the Internet as we know it is, was not the only network in place mutually connecting networks.

AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy were all in the race to build proprietary networks and the technorati did place multiple bets on them, in the initial stages of implementing the idea of mutually connected computers. However, despite millions of people subscribing to these networks, they eventually went extinct and they were literally (or virtually; an appropriate term to use) got crushed by a network built by researchers employed by government “who had no CEO, no master business plan, no paying subscribers, no investments in content and no financial interest in accumulating subscribers.” Selflessness in action!

At that point in time, no one even had the slightest idea that the Internet would become so ubiquitous one day that it would altogether disappear into a virtual dimension facilitating our digital lives; like electricity does now in the hybrid world.

And ironical as it may sound, had it not been for the Sputnik, the first artificial satellite ever to orbit planet earth made by the USSR, , Internet would not have come into existence in the USA!

The Sputnik spectre and the Internet

October 4, 1957: the Soviet Union succeeded in lugging a football-sized satellite to the outer space that just blipped and bleeped bursts of radio waves to earth from its orbit, before the USA could achieve an equivalent feat.

It was at once a glamorous and spectacular achievement that lent sleepless nights to the scientists in the USA. The Americans as a whole began to take science and technology, rather seriously than before. The Cold War had been on. Chemistry, physics and calculus were added to the school curriculum. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) were formed in 1958 to develop space-age technologies: rockets, weapons and computers.

The scare of the decade was what the US would do in the event of Soviet Union incapacitating the entire telephone networks in the US. In 1962, J.C.R. Licklider came out with a solution to this problem. A scientist from the MIT, he proposed the setting up of a ‘galactic network’ of computers that could enable communication amongst one another. Thus, even if the Soviets debilitated the telephone system, the plan B network could swing into action, keeping the military communication on. But, what if the Soviet Union took this network down, too? In 1965, a solution came into existence in the form of “packet switching”. Data would be broken down into blocks or packets before being sent to other computers. Multiple channels could be used to send and receive these packets ensuring their integrity at the reception-end despite outages at certain levels.

And finally, towards the end of 1960s the first workable prototype of the Internet was put into action. Its name was ARPANET or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network.

October 29, 1969: Twelve years after Sputnik happened, ARPANET delivered its first message. A computer, the size of a small house, stationed in a research lab in UCLA sent the message ‘LOGIN’ to another of its peer located at Stanford, more than 350 miles away. ‘LO’ was received and ‘GIN’, before it could be delivered, the systems crashed. Thus the Internet came into being not with a bang but with a crash!

The technology picked up pace in the 1970s after two scientists namely, Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf developed Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP; a model for communication as to how data could be transmitted between multiple networks.

ARPANET adopted TCP/IP on January 1, 1983. Thus network of networks arrived on the virtual scene. But something revolutionary happened in the Internet space in 1991 when a computer programmer in Switzerland named Tim Berners-Lee introduced the World Wide Web (WWW); in other words not a file send/ receive mechanism but a “web of information” that anyone can have access to. While it is often used interchangeably, the words Internet and WWW, it is pertinent to note that the latter is a subset of the former. WWW is the most common means to access data online in the form of websites and hyperlinks; the WWW thus helped popularise the Internet among the public.

What actually is the WWW

Those who are finicky about language and its correct usage would acknowledge that it in fact is wrong to write WWW as World Wide Web. It should actually be written with a hyphen: World-Wide Web. But the hyphen, it being an inconvenience, has invariably been done away with and WWW is now written as World Wide Web, and rightly so. WWW is not just how a URL (Uniform Resource Locator) begins, it must also be understood in its ‘physical sense’ that it is, other than just an acronym, is a collection of webpages and services distributed across the Internet and linked together by hypertext links. The Web thus constitutes a subset of Internet. It is wrong to assume that Internet = WWW.

When we say that it is a collection of webpages, we are talking of billions and billions of pages linked to one another.

The base document of a webpage is a text file that contains markup or commands that determine how the elements of text, graphics, animation, audio, video, hyperlinks etc are configured which is programmed in a language called HTML or Hypertext Markup Language.

Links are the pointers that take you to a webpage of a different URL. The document containing the link harbours information about the document that is being linked to, its address; but the reverse is not true.

When you click on a link, the browser takes the URL and looks into whether you have been to the page recently and if that be the case and the browser has the copy saved for that page, it would retrieve its own local copy and display the same in a process called caching.

What is Web 3.0?

Before we address the question, what is web 3.0, there is another question that predates it: what is or rather what was Web 1.0 and of course, Web 2.0.

Web 1.0 is a retronym (a new name for something that has been in existence for some time) referring to the stage 1 of the evolution of WWW all the way from 1991 to 2004. In the times of Web 1.0, there were more consumers of content than creators; in fact the former category of people constituted a brute majority. Personal web pages were quite common; mainly static pages hosted on ISP-run web servers or other free webhosting services like the now-defunct GeoCities.

Web 2.0 took the world from the lock of static webpages to interactive experiences and user-generated content which also resulted in the emergence of new business models manifested as Uber, AirBnB, Facebook, Instagram etc. Mobile, social and cloud constituted the three core technological layers of Web 2.0. Up until the emergence of MySpace, FB and the like, anonymity thrived on the Internet. The social networks, coaxed and cajoled users to adopt good behaviour and prompted them to share photos and videos and location with the wider world. This phenomenon also ensured that we entrusted unknown travellers with the keys to our homes (AirBnB) and got into a taxi which we would otherwise not have hailed for lack of authenticity (Uber).

This the age of Web 2.0 transitioning into Web 3.0.

Web 3.0, unlike its former avatar is built largely on edge computing, decentralised data networks and AI or Artificial Intelligence. Legacy data centres are being supplemented by a collective of potent computing resources scattered across phones, computers, appliances, sensors and even vehicles that are poised to produce and consume an outlandish 160 times more data in 2025 from 2010 levels.  From an individual’s health data, to a farmer’s crop data, or a car’s location as well as performance data, decentralised data networks will unleash wave after wave of data which would be processed by AI and Machine Learning algorithms to build precision materials, design drugs and do climate modelling.

What actually is a website and how does it function?

The web is a series of pages where each webpage has a unique address. It is virtually like an unending book wherein each page has got a number. When you key in the address of a webpage on a browser, the browser takes you directly to that page. A group of related webpages are referred to as website. Address of all the webpages on a website may begin in the same way. Webpages are connected by using links. A link connects one webpage to the other, one way.

When you click on the link, if the page is not already a part of the cache memory, the browser asks the web server for the page indicated in the URL of the link. Generally, the browser’s request message is very short and typically contains the ‘resource identifier’ portion of the URL. The server then responds and immediately stop connecting for that instance. Interestingly, the response message contains two sections:

  1. A header: it has information about the server and the requested document
  2. The document, per se: the format of the document, the size of the doc and how recently it has been altered.

The browser then needs to display the page. For this, the web browser separates the ordinary text in the document from the markup text—‘instructional text’ that tells the browser as to what piece of text should appear where and in what font and size and what image/ media should be displayed where etc.– and then draw the text to the appropriate location and designated font. Sometimes, some images need to be embedded in the page as a part of rendering. They have separate URLs as they are not a part of the document per se. They will be deemed as separate entities in their own individual capacity. The browser, then takes the URL of the object (image, video etc.) and begins the process again, locating the appropriate server, connecting to the same, and placing a request for the object. Each and every object is thus obtained, separately. Thereafter the objects are positioned and displayed within the page and a webpage is considered to have loaded fully only when the rendering for each and every object is complete.

What technologies underpin websites in 2020?

The list goes like this:

  1. Browsers: Request information from servers and then beam it in the way humans can understand. Chrome and Safari are examples.
  2. HTML and CSS: A web browser knows what to show once they receive the request, thanks to HTML or Hypertext Markup Language. Cascading Style Sheets tells how HTML elements are to be displayed.
  3. Web Development Frameworks: Simple or mundane tasks in web development are taken care of by Frameworks. Angular, Ruby on Rails etc. are examples.
  4. Programming Languages: Languages for the computers to communicate in. Examples are Javascript, Python, Ruby and the like.
  5. Protocols: How to pass information back and forth between computers and devices needs a systematic approach. HTTP, DDP, REST are examples.
  6. API (Application Programming Interface): A way to let developers use some of the functionalities of apps without sharing the code.
  7. Data Formats: Data is stored in a structure called data formats. XML, CSV etc. are examples.
  8. Client: User of an application is called a client. Computers, mobile devices, tablets etc. are clients.
  9. Server: Application code is usually stored on the server.

Mobile Applications

Take into account the following set of 2021 trivia, which in no way is trivial:

  1. Mobile apps account for 57% of all digital media use.
  2. By 2022, yearly downloads of mobile apps are slated to reach 258 billion, a 45% increase from 2017 at 178 billion.
  3. By 2022, app store consumer spending may touch $157 bn worldwide
  4. Mobile app users in the US alone has 100 apps on average installed on their smartphones.
  5. By the end of this year, there would be roughly 7 billion mobile users worldwide.

Familiarity can breed passive ignorance as well. Have you ever asked the question, what a mobile app is and how does it function? Read on.

What is a mobile application and how does it function?

An app or a mobile app or a mobile application is a type of application software conceived to run on a mobile device like that of a smartphone or tablet or computer. They provide services in line with the counterparts of PC realm. They are individual software units performing limited function. Apps are generally downloaded from App Store, giant ‘app library’ for iPhone, iPad etc. or from Play Store run by Google for Android apps.

A mobile application may also be known as an app, web app, online app, iPhone app or smartphone app.

Mobile applications move in tandem with the mobile environment unlike integrated software systems found on personal computers. Each app provides limited functionality such as a gaming experience, web browsing or say, that of a calculator. This is slowly changing as the world is now shrinking into the size of a mobile phone. But the specificity of the mobile apps is very much desired, thanks to its ability to leverage a certain or particular function of your device. A very simple mobile application generally take PC-based applications and port them to a mobile unit. However, apps that use location-based features are built from scratch.

There are generally, two types of apps: native apps and web apps. The former category of apps are built for a specific mobile operating system like Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android. They, since they are OS dependent, perform better than web apps which are used in HTML5 or CSS (and require minimum device memory since they run through a browser). In the case of web apps, all the relevant information is saved on a server-based DB or database. These apps, generally, unlike native apps, need a stable Internet connection to be used.

The functioning of a mobile app depends on its utility. Generally apps require you to share your personal data with them to carry out their functionality. Thus, a photo editing app may require you to let it have access to your photos or Gallery, a mobile call placing app may require access to your contacts and so on and so forth.

Technologies underpinning mobile apps

For you to use a mobile application, you need to have that application developed and there are at least five programming languages that can help you with it.

  1. Swift: If you are in the course of building an application native to Apple, Swift is the language for you to go. It needs minimal coding and can easily be maintained. Developers use it for macOS, iOS, watchOS, tvOS and the like.
  2. C++: The language provides the simplistic base for most of the programming languages, and has the power to create tech apps that are highly dynamic. The main advantage is that you can use C++ to build apps for multiple platforms in one go; compiler-based approach renders it a versatile tool.
  3. Java: Official language for Android mobile app development and quite popular too. If you want your app to be flexible, modular and extensible, then Java is the go-to language.
  4. HTML 5: If you are keen to build web-frontend app for mobile devices, you may opt for HTML 5. ‘Write once and run anywhere’ is the catchphrase.
  5. PHP: Language that uses a three-layered model and enables creation of dynamic mobile apps. If an app requires a database integration, then PHP is suitable.

Apart from languages a few mobile app development frameworks or ‘set-codes’ that developers like are:

  1. Flutter: New and buzzing cross-platform mobile app development tech. Dart is the programming language underpinning the framework.
  2. ReactNative: JavaScript open-source framework. Provides robust support for IDE or Integrated Development Environment and other tools to develop the app.
  3. Ionic: Uses the HTML5 programming language. Draws from the powers of HTML, CSS3, and JavaScript.
  4. Xamarin: It uses single code across Android, iOS, Windows as well as other platforms.
  5. NativeScript: It lets a developer to make apps by using JavaScript or by any other language that trans-compiles to JavaScript. Also, a developer using NativeScript can re-purpose third-party libraries from Maven, npm.js, and CocoaPods.
  6. Felgo: Used to make mobile games and apps. Previously known as V-Play Engine. A popular cross-platform development framework.
  7. Mobile Angular UI: Combines the best of Angular js and Bootstrap 3 syntax. Fresh UI components such as navbar, sidebars, modals and overlays, switches etc. are provided.

The future of mobile apps and websites

It is easier to create the future than predict it!

But here goes half-a-dozen of well-informed predictions on the future of apps and websites and what is in store for them quite immediately down the road.

  1. On the one end smartphones will be the hub of a Personal-Area Network with connectivity to your own on-body healthcare sensors, jewellery, watches, display devices and on the other end, relevant apps will draw respective data in from these wearables to deliver information in new ways. To situate things in context, 101.9 million wearable devices were shipped in 2016 alone. This is 2021.
  2. In the Internet of Things realm, smartphones by virtue of installed apps will display and analyse information from connected devices, interface with networks to monitor things and pay for subscribed services.
  3. Mobile applications, using data from precise indoor location sensing data from mobile phones will facilitate a range of new personalized services and information.
  4. When it comes to websites, AI and Machine Learning algorithms will ensure that e-commerce websites will have autonomous personal shoppers.
  5. Voice Interfaces could altogether free websites and make them less and less reliant on rigid content structures. Pages, per se, may not be seen but the content of the pages will be engaged with using voice interfaces.
  6. With Augmented Reality in tow, users, as they walk down a street are relayed retailer data and offers from the latter’s website just as restaurants will beam their menu items. The websites thus may need to be minimalistic and flexible apart from being adaptive.