I just spent an enjoyable morning with Robert Cailliau, looking at options for recreating the line-mode browser experience. He turned up at my office with a very rough, but working, prototype that he had put together himself using LiveCode.
Robert Cailliau cobbling together a line-mode browser
LiveCode is a cross-platform rapid application development platform that can create desktop applications and apps. LiveCode was no doubt inspired by Hypercard, which was a hypermedia system that predated the the web - I like this thought, for some reason.
The line-mode browser was a really simple early browser that could be used by terminals and a variety of fairly basic machines. It didn't require a mouse or graphical capabilities: the user would simply read web pages and hit keys to scroll (or, rather, go to the next page), follow links and so on. The display was pretty basic: just 80 characters wide by 24 high. Here is an early screenshot of the line-mode browser showing the CERN homepage that dates back to the early 1990s:
A (printed) screenshot of the line-mode browser. Users would type commands rather than use a mouse or a touch interface.
If you look at the content of the page you can see numbers in square brackets peppered through the text. These are numbers that relate to links that the user could follow by typing the number and hitting <return>. Typing number 2 would take the user to http://info.cern.ch, I would imagine.
A number of interesting thoughts came out of my discussions with Robert which I thought I would share here:
Look back at the line-mode browser screenshot. At the bottom it says to type numbers (for links) or 'back', 'up', 'quit' or 'help'. I presume these commands mapped to either specific keys, or that the user could type the commands directly ('help' or 'h' and then <return>).
Was there a mapping between obsolete keys such as the 'page up' and 'quit' keys that were on many earlier keyboards?
Badly-constructed HTML and authenticity
During Robert's demonstration we talked about how to handle badly-formed HTML. "Too bad," said Robert, "the line-mode browser never had that!"
It's an interesting thought. Should whatever we produce to recreate the experience of using the line-mode browser cope with badly-formed HTML? If it didn't, then it would be rather limited beyond being used to read, say, only the content of info.cern.ch. This would be a shame, but would it be more authentic to handle it this way?
Line-mode browser on touch
LiveCode allows you to create apps. I hadn't really thought of doing this for the line-mode browser before. Would it make any sense at all on a touch device?
Rendering HTML elements in the line-mode browser
The screenshot looks as if it's displaying tabular data with a scannable left column and more information on the right. But knowing what sticklers for semantic markup the early WWW team were I cannot imagine that this is a table. What was it - a definition list? What other elements had a special visual treatment within the line-mode browser? Note the first paragraph, for instance, which appears to have a leading line indent.
What next for the line-mode browser
Creating a downloadable application is just one avenue we're exploring. We're also looking at creating something that you can use directly with a modern browser. More on this soon. In the meantime check out Robert's first attempt in LiveCode:
A quick proof-of-concept version of the line-mode browser. This screenshot doesn't show the anchors as being addressable, but Robert got this going...
Dan Noyes on