My 8/16/09 Missoulian column
In the history of the Internet, the first widely used Web browser that emerged in the early 1990s figures as a watershed moment.
Browsers have greatly evolved since Tim Berners-Lee developed the concept of hypertext and created the first browser, called WorldWide-Web, in 1991. That evolution happened because others jumped into the new world of Web browser development.
The first popular commercial browser was called Mosaic, and it was one of the reasons the Internet took off in the 1990s, because the free software allowed many to easily use the Web for the first time.
A few other, lesser known browsers came before, but Mosaic was at the right place at the right time, and the people involved continue to shake things up.
Released in 1993, Mosaic was developed by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. They were funded by Al Gore’s High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991, which was very important legislation in the history of the Internet (and the same congressional act that causes people to wrongly accuse Gore of claiming to have “invented the Internet.”)
Though it and the Web were still primarily text-based, Mosaic was a true point-and-click browser that supported color and graphics. Mosaic would look “stone age” alongside today’s Internet Explorer, Firefox or Safari, because modern browsers do so many more things, but back then, it changed everything.
With Mosaic, Andreessen went on to start a private company called Netscape, one of the first Internet boom companies. If you were into high-tech in the 1990s, you’ll remember how popular Netscape’s browser was, capturing more than 90 percent market share in some years.
Now, Netscape has completely disappeared, even though the last few years of its life its code was based on Firefox. Microsoft – a late arrival to the Internet and whom Netscape trounced for years – now has around 60 percent of browser market share with Internet Explorer.
Coincidentally, Andreessen happened to be back in the news last week. He’s a venture capitalist now and is backing a new Web browser called RockMelt, and its features are mostly secret.
Before Mosaic, commercial services such as Compuserve, AOL and Prodigy provided e-mail and Internet services. Mosaic was responsible for taking much of their consumer traffic away – more on that next week.