You can use HTML to present information or build web pages.

HTML stands for Hypertext Markup Language which is a bit unfortunate because it gives the impression that this is a programming language. It’s not. The most important part of the name is markup. To me, it’s even more important than hypertext which provides a way for one HTML document to refer to another HTML document or even to another location in the same HTML document. You can create HTML that has no links or references to anywhere else. But you can’t create HTML without markup.

We need some way to organize extra information. Some way to mix the text you want with how that text will be displayed as well as all the other things that can be included. Even something as simple as making a word bold needs to be specified.

Listen to the full episode to learn more about how HTML relates to the Internet and some history about Tim Berners-Lee who created HTML and the World Wide Web. You can also read the full transcript below.

Transcript

HTML stands for Hypertext Markup Language which is a bit unfortunate because it gives the impression that this is a programming language. It’s not. The most important part of the name is markup. To me, it’s even more important than hypertext which provides a way for one HTML document to refer to another HTML document or even to another location in the same HTML document.

You can create HTML that has no links or references to anywhere else. But you can’t create HTML without markup.

Before we get too far, though, let’s think about how we like to organize text and information. I’ll explain more details about HTML in another episode.

When writing text, we normally want it to be easy to read. We want it well organized. And there should be pictures and diagrams, maps and charts, columns and numbered or bulleted lists, doodles and colors. And there should be large and small text, special characters and symbols, backgrounds, borders, and shading, tables of contents and indexes, mathematical formulas and artwork, and more.

You get the idea. Making something that’s easy to read involves a lot more than just organizing our thoughts. Books and magazines do this and the work isn’t done when an author finishes a manuscript, or a reporter completes an interview, or a scientist writes about some discovery.

The possibilities are even more elaborate with electronic media. Now we can include sound and video, animations and expanding sections, tabs to switch pages, forms to let readers type in their own information, reformatting for different sizes, detecting and responding to different devices and phones, updating and gathering new and updated information, and even more.

We need some way to organize all this extra information. Some way to mix the text you want with how that text will be displayed as well as all the other things that can be included. Even something as simple as making a word bold needs to be specified.

Now, if you just want to handwrite something, you can draw whatever you want on paper. You can put the text wherever you want with whatever color of ink you want. You can make it as big or as small as you want. You can include sketches, maps, diagrams, and charts. You can draw boxes around sections. You can bind the pages into a book and include page numbers. In short, you can make a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

To make another one means starting all over again. Or the pages could be transferred to blocks of wood and carved by hand to make stamps that could print hundreds of copies. Each page would need to be carved like this which could take years. This was how books used to be made.

The invention of moveable type helped. This allowed individual letters to be made into stamps that would transfer ink onto paper. Each letter stamp or type could be placed next to others to fill up a page. This was a lot faster than carving but lost a lot of flexibility. Maps and diagrams would still need to be carved.

The printing press helped speed up the printing process. Somebody still had to arrange all the individual characters by sliding the type onto composing sticks set to the width of a column of text.

I mention all this to ask you this question. Would you consider this programming? Is it programming to select metal type from boxes and arrange them into rows and columns? To layout a page like this so that the whole thing can be covered in ink and pressed onto a page?

This is not programming. It’s presentation. The fact that we use computer screens instead of printing presses doesn’t change this.

Whatever method is used must be understood by a computer program. This computer program needs programming. But HTML is just a common and agreed upon format for providing the text and how it should look. Think of it like instructions given to the type setters arranging the moveable type with their composing sticks. Instructions telling them to select bold type when you want a word to be printed in bold.

If you want to design your own way of doing all this, then it doesn’t have to be agreed on by anybody else. It doesn’t have to even be known or available for anybody else to use. That means you’ll have to program everything. You’ll need one program that lets a person type in the text, select parts of the text and change the size and colors, choose where to insert images and how the text will flow around the images, etc. This will be your editor and used to create your content.

Then you’ll need to write another program that knows how to read the output from the editor. This will be your reader. It may just be another version of your editor with no ability to change anything.

The bigger problem will be convincing your customers to install this new software in order to create their documents. And then convincing other people to install and use custom software to display the content.

You’ll have a much easier time with this when something is new and offers an improvement over how things are currently being done. Otherwise whatever new system you’re proposing needs to offer enough of an improvement to solve a major problem. Just asking somebody to use your system because it’s different is not enough.

When the world-wide-web was first created by Tim Berners-Lee, he put all of these pieces together. He created the HTML format to express how information could be organized and linked together. He created software to allow publishers to create HTML documents. He created software that knew how to read and display the HTML documents. And he created software that used networking protocols to send these HTML documents from one computer to another.

This was all that was needed to allow somebody to write a document, format it and include rich media in the document and then make that document available to anybody with an internet connection. All of this was done in an open way that others could build on without any patents or royalty demands. It was free to use and extend.

To me, one of the more interesting things about Tim Berners-Lee is that before creating the world wide web, he used to write type-setting software for printers. It all comes back to moveable type.