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A Love Letter to Tinkerable Software, Trevor Gilbert:

How did I learn to make websites? Using my incredible skills highlighted above, I booted up Frontpage on our family desktop and started to poke around. It was a tool that made things easier for the user, but it didn’t lose the ability to get into the code and try out different things. I was able to bold something using the editor and then click over to the code and see that it did it using <b>. I was able to see what was happening and learn how to do it without guardrails. Was it great? No! It was terrible, the websites looked awful. But I did learn how websites worked.

[Frontpage et al. was] tinkering neutral. They weren’t designed from the ground-up to have people tinkering in them. But they also didn’t discourage tinkering. [...] there weren’t locks on everything. And when you’re just starting to learn, a closed-but-unlocked door is an invitation to explore.

That’s sadly less the case nowadays. There’s a certain pride of “I know what needs to be built and everything else will be locked down” in today’s software. [...] much of it is unnecessary. It’s in those unnecessary constraints that we losing the freedom to explore.

I don't believe I would be in the career I have now, or even passionate about computers at all, were I not able to tinker in Frontpage Express on my parents' old Dell Win2k laptop. Viewing HTML/CSS code side by side with what the user saw in-browser, and being able to poke around with said code as the page changed in real time, sparked a passion in me at 10 years old that persists to this day.

My gratitude for my formative experiences is only matched by my sadness that children today usually have such a different path into the field of web and software development. Yes, IT and Computer Science's presence in the school curriculum has exploded in the last decade, but I worry that the push into closed computing due to the popularity of the iPhone (and Android to a lesser extent) has increased the "interest barrier for entry" into the field.

We've seen it in web development with the advent of desktop-class web applications, and the "compile step" - which, while often necessary to deliver complex sites, does have the unfortunate side effect of completely obfuscating the user-viewable source code.

Overall, I think this is less a technological issue and more a societal one; what the web is and what it means to people has changed substantially from the early days of the internet. I just hope that the spark that I felt 20+ years ago is still there.