The History, Evolution and Future of Bookmarks

Bookmarks in book
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Bookmarks, in computer terminology are similar to their real-world counterparts. Just as a bookmark inserted into a book lets you return later to where you left off, so do bookmarks let you return to specific web pages or—in some applications—specific places on a page.

Over time, bookmarks have gone by different names in different browsers and applications, and have offered users many features—and headaches. At their core, they enable you to keep track of web pages you want to revisit later, without growing a forest of open tabs on your browser.

The Evolution of Bookmarks

Bookmarks were conceived of before the World Wide Web existed. In 1989, Craig Cockburn drafted a proposal for a touch-screen device called “PageLink” that would function as a combination of what we now think of as an e-book reader and a browser—complete with bookmarks.

Cockburn applied for a patent in April of 1990, but it was never developed. (Cockburn has posted his patent application online here.)

Bookmarks as we know them today first appeared in 1993, as part of the browser Mosaic 1.0. Mosaic kept track of every website users visited, and colored links differently if it led to a page users had been to before. The idea of culling a list of “bookmarks” was obviously already under discussion, as is evident from World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee’s discussion of Mosaic’s bookmarks in the May, 1993, issue of his “World Wide Web News”:

The bookmark list, known as a "hotlist", is saved between sessions as a private list of interesting places. You can even add personal annotations onto any document, which will appear each time you (but only you) read it...Marc Andreesen, the author, has done a really good job here.

Other early browsers, such as ViolaWWW and Celio, featured similar bookmarking capabilities. But it was Mosaic’s explosion in popularity that helped ensure that bookmarking functionalities would be a staple of future browsers. Andreesen included them in his next browser, Netscape Navigator. Over the years, and with different browsers, bookmarks have gone by other names besides “HotList,” such as “Favorites” and “Shortcuts,” but bookmarking has become the de facto generic term for these functions.

Whatever the name, today bookmarking capabilities can be found prominently and easily in every major browser: Explorer, Safari, Chrome, and Firefox.

Not surprisingly, browser developers continued to tweak and try to improve their own bookmarks, to compete with their rivals.

Some browsers allow users to group multiple bookmarks so that they can be opened all at once, with a single command; helpful for users who know they want to start their sessions with the same group of pages open every time.

In 2004, Firefox introduced “Live Bookmarking,” which allowed users to create bookmarks that would populate dynamically, automatically, via an RSS feed.

Nor are bookmarks the exclusive province of browsers. Many programs offer bookmarking of information within their programs, especially e-book readers.

As the popularity and capabilities of smart phones grew—and more and more computer users found themselves using multiple devices between their time at work, at home and on the road—websites began offering bookmarking capabilities that users could access no matter which device they used to log in.

The next natural step was for different users to share and interact with each other’s bookmarks. Delicious, founded in 2003, helped popularize the terms “social bookmarking” and “tagging” to describe these interactions.

In 2005, Google rolled out Google Bookmarks—not to be confused with browser bookmarks—that not only offered bookmark portability, but allowed users to do searches of all the pages they had bookmarked.

As with so much of the internet, questions of privacy and ownership of bookmarking information remain unresolved. For the moment, the owners of social bookmarking sites and applications can collect, share and sell data on what their users are tagging and sharing to advertisers, marketers, political campaigns and anyone else interested in tracking such information.

Types of Bookmarks

In addition to the variations on bookmarks discussed above—social bookmarking, browser bookmarking, bookmarking applications, and bookmarking websites—there are technical differences that may not be immediately apparent to most computer laypersons.

Specifically, there are different ways computers can manage and store the information that makes up users’ bookmarks.

They can be stored in an HTML file, typically bookmarks.html. Some browsers store bookmarks in a secure database format. Others store each bookmark as its own file.

Each of these methods has its own advantages and disadvantages when it comes to user management of their information.

The Future of Bookmarks

As far as bookmarks have come since their creation in the early ‘90s, there remains room for improvement. (You can find a good inventory of complaints here.)

For one thing, thanks to commercial incentives, browser makers continue to pre-load their bookmark lists with sites that may be of little to no interest to their users. For that reason—and for obvious proprietary concerns—while browser makers have improved on portability when it comes to moving and syncing your bookmarks from device to device, there remains much to be done when it comes to retaining your bookmarks from one brand of browser to another.

In addition, the names automatically generated for bookmarks often leave much to be desired—coming, as they do, from web-page metadata that’s often composed primarily to reward keyword searches, rather than to present a clear, concise, easy-to-read page title.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with bookmarks is one inherent in any memory system—as the information mounts, it’s tougher to find and access exactly what you want. For that reason, some have suggested that bookmark functions could be automated to check for and remove dead links, or to sort bookmarks by the frequency with which they’re actually used.



Show drop-down “bookmark” menus from Chrome, Firefox, Explorer, Safari.