The interface is the message

The Internet needed a friendly face to become usher in the digital revolution. The browser, which launched 20 years ago this spring, was that face. Today's interface of choice, the app, has launched a second revolution.

Daniel Munoz/Reuters
A fan used her tablet to shoot a picture of tennis pro Andy Murray after a match in Brisbane, Australia, Jan. 6.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Mosaic 1.0 Web browser. For all the revolutionary disruption caused by the Internet, it was Mosaic that turned the underlying technology into the world’s instantly available library, social crossroads, and e-commerce marketplace.

Mosaic was the work of a group of computer science students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign led by Marc Andreessen, who later went on to cofound Netscape and had a hand in Ning, Twitter, and Facebook. Riding on the shoulders of Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web two years earlier – which, in turn, rode on the shoulders of the thousands of scientists, engineers, government planners, and businesspeople who built the underlying Internet – Mosaic democratized the digital life. It was simple and obvious. Two decades on, it doesn’t look very different from Chrome, Safari, or other modern browsers. Mosaic made the browser a household appliance. 

The browser changed the Internet and is not going away anytime soon. But mobile applications are the interface of the moment. Apps exploded in use because of smart phones and tablets. As Chris Gaylord explains in a Monitor cover story, apps go browsers one better: They connect the digital and tactile worlds.

You can navigate with them – find restaurants, snap photos and record videos, share with friends. Everyone who uses a smart phone or tablet has a few go-to apps. My current favorites include Flipboard, Zite, and, of course, the Monitor Weekly app (admittedly, the first-generation app we have is buggy and clunky; a new and better version is on the way). I was briefly a passable talent with the Doodle Jump app. I’ve played Words With Friends. I was once household champion at Angry Birds

My app interest has settled down as the novelty of my iPhone and iPad has worn off. I now find myself relying on apps for practical things – the alarm clock app every morning, the oven timer app most evenings. I used the compass app recently to orient a weather vane. But day in and day out, the app I use most (don’t yawn) is the flashlight. It has just enough light to help me spot the tennis ball my dogs lose every night under the kitchen counter. 

The flashlight app is what any good interface should be – simple, obvious, and helpful in the real world.

* * *

While we’re on the subject of things digital: The inner workings of the Internet era are more complex than those of the Gutenberg era. Take, for instance, advertising, which is a key way we support the continuation of Monitor journalism. 

Online advertising comes to in two distinct ways. One is through a direct sale by our advertising department. The rest flies in automatically from providers such as Google Ad Exchange. Our advertising staff checks off in advance categories we don’t want – alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, etc. Occasionally, an inappropriate ad slips through. We appreciate it when we hear from readers who see them (you can click the "About these ads" link below any ad on our site). And we quickly adjust our filters.

Some readers have complained about political ads. We hope you’ll be tolerant when these don’t fit your point of view. We monitor them to ensure they don’t engage in ad hominem attacks or fan the flames of intolerance. 

By taking ads from both sides, we think we are providing balance. And we trust our readers to decide for themselves.

John Yemma is editor of The Monitor.

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