The Browser and the Modern WebOne of the primary reasons that the early iterations of the Internet weren’t very attractive to people is that they required users to spend a lot of time scanning directories looking for files. Once a connection was established, the user could navigate menus and open files, but it was just text upon text upon text. There were some early programs aimed at helping index all the available information, but the data was so vast that an index didn’t help navigate to the file that was needed. Enter the Web browser.
MosaicThe World Wide Web, like much of the Internet, was initially a playground for intellectuals. Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina changed that in a very big way. The two were working for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NSCA), creating a Web browser. There was no shortage of Web browsers at the time, but almost all of them were Unix-based and naturally text heavy. There was really no unified approach to things like images or sounds, and most browsers handled them by loading separate windows. Andreessen and Bina created Mosaic, a browser that broke this mold.
The Graphical WebMosaic was clearly a unique browser in that it worked across all platforms. This meant that it worked with the Windows computers that represented the vast majority of personal computers in the world. Second, it was built to display the World Wide Web as an integrated experience with text, images and sound, all activated through the graphical user interface (GUI). The development of Mosaic influenced the development of HTML by defining things like the tag for embedded images before any consensus was reached.
This somewhat heavy-handed approach had a positive effect in that the pages making up the WWW were forced to meet the capabilities of this new browser. Within the same window, a user could now see a photo of a bird next to text describing its species and then play a file of its song. Like email, this was a killer app that would sell.
Mosaic spread rapidly and prompted non-academics to start producing websites for the new Web surfers using Mosaic to access the Web. These new sites were differentiated by their URLs; government sites used a “.gov” domain name, academics and nonprofit organizations used “.org,” and the commercial domains – which would soon come to dominate the Internet – used “.com”. The number of websites grew from less than 1,000 to more 10,000 in 1994 alone, and continued to grow at a breakneck pace.
A Little Company called NetscapeMosaic worked just fine, but Andreessen saw more potential. In May of 1994, he struck out and founded Netscape along with Jim Clark, a tech entrepreneur. As a private company, Netscape had the resources to move quickly, allowing it to release the first commercial Web browser – Mozilla 1.0 – by December of that year. The product was renamed Netscape Navigator in subsequent versions.
To say Netscape was a success is a huge understatement. It was one of the fastest-growing companies in U.S. history. It went public in 1995, making the founders instant millionaires. Netscape advertised that “the Web is for everyone.” It also represented the first time that average computer users could get online with relative ease.
It didn’t take long for Microsoft to notice this new threat, and it fought back with a browser of its own by the name of Internet Explorer. By giving away the browser for free as part of the Windows operating system, Microsoft was able to undercut Netscape. By the end of 1998, Netscape was purchased by America Online (AOL), which eventually stopped putting resources into the company. So while Netscape is no longer around, its importance cannot be understated in the development of the modern Web.
When We Say Internet, We Mean the WebWhen most of us talk about the Internet, we are really referring to the World Wide Web. The Internet is a system of protocols that allows computers to network, while the World Wide Web is what we are using that network to access. From the mid-1990s through the dot-com bubble, the Web really came into its own, eventually overshadowing the concept of an Internet entirely. However, without the groundwork done to create the Internet itself, there could be no Web.
The history of the Internet is a story of small achievements building up to something grand, something that puts the user at the center. Because of CERN’s decision not to make the Web proprietary, we have the freedom to use it for educational purpose, just as the NSF intended, or to keep up on celebrity gossip (like celebrity gossip magazine TMZ intended). Whether it’s renovation tips, the classics available via Project Gutenberg, or even the seedier underbelly that includes cyber crime and violent, discriminatory or pornographic websites, the Internet brings it all to you at the click of a link.
Vannevar Bush and others believed such a resource would make us much smarter by allowing us to store and access great swaths of knowledge outside ourselves, and generally leave mankind infinitely wiser and better off. Sometimes it feels like all that external storage has just made room for committing more sports trivia and quotes from “The Simpsons” to memory. Still, it is easy to see how we are better off thanks to the Internet, at least in terms of the free flow of information and communication in our daily lives. Many people who now spend hours a day online – whether for work or pleasure – have no idea how many tiny steps it took to make this a technology for the masses. (Learn more about the people who made the Internet possible in The Pioneers of the World Wide Web.)
The Future of the InternetNow that we’ve had a bird’s-eye view of all the work that went into it, the natural question is to ask what is in store for the future. We've already seen some of the future with social media, cloud computing and mobile devices that allow us to be connected to the Internet in all but the most remote locations. And there are small hints of what may or may not be some day. One of the most interesting questions is whether someone 20 years from now will even be reading this history, rather than listening to it being read by a browser or viewing it in a purely graphical representation of videos and infographics. Will the term browser still apply in 20 years? Will free content driven by advertising still be the primary business model?
These are all good questions, but ones that can only be answered by time. The one sure thing is that the Internet and the World Wide Web - and our relationship with the two - will continue to evolve in the future.