JavaScript is a programming language used primarily by Web browsers to create a dynamic and interactive experience for the user. Most of the functions and applications that make the Internet indispensable to modern life are coded in some form of JavaScript.

The earliest incarnations of JavaScript were developed in the late 1990s for the Netscape Navigator Web browser. At the time, Web pages were static, offering little user interaction beyond clicking links and loading new pages. For the first time, JavaScript enabled animation, adaptive content and form validation on the page.

For many years, JavaScript only functioned on a limited number of browsers. Microsoft's Internet Explorer, the largest browser base, did not support JavaScript until much later. Instead, Microsoft created its own proprietary client-side script called JScript. In the early days of Web development, programmers who wished to create dynamic websites were often forced to choose one browser family over the other. This was less than ideal because it made the Internet less universally accessible.

JavaScript did not become standardized and widely adopted until 1999. Even after standardization, browser compatibility remained an issue for over a decade.

How does JavaScipt work?

JavaScript is what is known as a client-side script. Most Web applications, such as a search engine, work because of an interaction between the user's device (e.g. computer, phone or tablet) and a remote server. The software on the remote server sends information to the client (i.e. the user's machine) and the software on the client side reads the information and renders a Web page on screen.
A client-side script is a programming language that performs its tasks entirely on the client's machine and does not need to interact with the server to function. For instance, if you have a Web page loaded on your computer and your Internet service provider goes down, you are still able to interact with the Web pages already loaded on your browser. You will not, however, be able to navigate to new Web pages or access any data located remotely.

Some of the dynamic website enhancements performed by JavaScript are:

  • Autocomplete
  • Loading new content or data onto the page without reloading the page
  • Rollover effects and dropdown menus
  • Animating page elements such as fading, resizing or relocating
  • Playing audio and video
  • Validating input from Web forms
  • Repairing browser compatibility issues

While JavaScript is a client-side language, some of its most powerful features involve asynchronous interaction with a remote server. Asynchronous simply means that JavaScript is able to communicate with the server in the background without interrupting the user interaction taking place in the foreground.

Take a search engine for example. Today, search engines almost all have an autocomplete function. The user begins typing a word into the search box and a list of possible search terms or phrases appears below. The experience is seamless. Suggested search terms appear without reloading the page.

In the background, JavaScript reads the letters as the user types, sends those letters to a remote server and the server sends suggestions back.

The software on the server side analyzes the words and runs algorithms to anticipate the user's search term. Such programs are diabolically large and complex. The JavaScript on the client's machine is as simple and small as possible so as not to slow down the user's interaction. The communication between JavaScript and the server-side program is limited by the user's bandwidth. This is why developers prioritize efficiency in JavaScript functions and make the amount of data communicated between the programs as small as possible.

Only once the user selects a search term does the entire page reload and produce the search results. Engines such as Google have reduced or eliminated the need to reload, even for that step. They simply produce results using the same asynchronous process.

The future of JavaScript

While JavaScript is not the only client-side scripting language on the Internet, it was one of the first and it is still the most widely used. Many developers believe that JavaScript is inefficient and finicky, so they have made many improvements to the language over the years. Enterprising programmers have created JavaScript libraries - more concise languages constructed from the building blocks of JavaScript that are less complex and can be targeted for specific applications.

For instance, JQuery is a JavaScript library that simplifies and expands many of JavaScript's animation and interactive functions, while Backbone.js makes responsive design easier.
JavaScript has become integral to the Internet experience as developers build increased interaction and complexity into their applications. Search engines, ecommerce, content management systems, responsive design, social media and phone apps would not be possible without it.


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