The Future of the Internet - 20 Years Ago

Last week, an interesting tweet appeared.

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Last week, the following tweet appeared:

Netscape Navigator was released 20 years ago today. Thank you to everyone who supported us at Netscape & built the Web with us then and now!

That was posted by a certain Marc Andreessen. You probably know him as a successful venture capitalist, but before that, he was one of the people who helped popularise the Web. He did that by creating the Mosaic browser back in 1993 - first for Unix, and later for the Apple Macintosh and Windows (version 3.1). Mosaic was written at the University of Illinois, and was freely available for non-commercial use. But once the appeal of a graphical Web browser became evident, it was natural for people to start to think about turning it into a business.

The company that resulted was Mosaic Communications, and was set up by the entrepreneur Jim Clark, the founder of Silicon Graphics, along with Marc Andreessen. The University of Illinois wasn't too happy about the company using Mosaic in its name, and so it adopted that of its first product, Netscape. Netscape's August 1995 IPO – the most successful in history at that point - saw the 18-month old startup valued at $3 billion, paving the way for the new generation of rich and hugely powerful Internet startups we know today.

Netscape also largely defined the new world of the Web. Its home page became, for a while at least, the start page of the Internet, the first place that everybody glanced at when they went online. Successive versions of its browser, Netscape Navigator, were awaited with excitement as new features were constantly added.

Unfortunately, that huge success did not go unnoticed by Bill Gates. Microsoft was initially dismissive of the Internet - I attended one of its press conferences in the mid-1990s where I was told that the company didn't think that the Internet would take off, because it was "too complicated" for general users: instead, it intended to bring out its own, easy-to-use - and proprietary - online system.

But faced with the rise of Netscape, Bill Gates was forced to admit that Microsoft had got it wrong, and that the Internet was not something it could ignore. Indeed, it was vital that it take control of it, lest Netscape's attempt to create a rival platform to the Windows desktop - something that it referred to as the "Webtop" - was successful. The result was a quick launch of Internet Explorer, based on code from a company called Spyglass, and then a series of shrewd deals with AOL, PC manufacturers and ISPs to drive the uptake of Microsoft's browser.

The fall of Netscape was not entirely down to Microsoft's aggressive moves. Netscape made a number of serious missteps, and the quality of the Netscape Navigator code started deteriorating. Eventually, that led to most of the Netscape program being released as open source, and the creation of the Mozilla project - something I wrote about in detail in an Open Enterprise column published seven years ago.

But here, I'd like to dwell on that moment in October 1994 when the first beta version of Netscape Navigator was released, and many of us sensed that this was the start of a new era in computing. Below is a column I wrote at that time, exactly as it first appeared; I hope it conveys a little of the atmosphere of those heady times.

Mosaic Netscape - The Future Face of the Internet?

The World-Wide Web (WWW) browser Mosaic, which lets you view hypertext documents with images, sounds and even video clips, has undoubtedly contributed enormously to the growth of the Internet. Indeed, it has been called its 'killer app', the 'must-have' application in the same way that Visicalc was for the Apple II and Lotus 1-2-3 for the IBM PC.

But the current incarnation of Mosaic is not without its problems. As a non-commercial application, there has been no real support. Worse, perhaps, was the fact that it was written to be used in an environment with a fast connection to the Internet. In fact, most people in companies have probably been using it with a dial-up TCP/IP line, where even the fastest modem can soon be overwhelmed with the volume of data involved in downloading images.

As it has become clear that the WWW was going to be one of the main ways for turning the Internet into a viable commercial medium, and that Mosaic - or something like it - would be the tool that users would employ to explore this new world, there has been a rush to license rights to use various aspects of Mosaic for use in new products. The recent appearance of Mosaic Netscape from Mosaic Communications is therefore being greeted as something of a milestone - the first next-generation commercial WWW browser.

Part of the interest in this new program stems from the fact that Mosaic Communications is run by Marc Andreessen, the original creator of Mosaic, (along with Jim Clark, the founder of Silicon Graphics), and so in some sense is producing the 'official' Mosaic Mark II. Moreover, the performance enhancements that Mosaic Netscape offers - including faster and more intelligent fetching of graphics - mean that this product may well finally overcome many companies' suspicion of the older, unsupported and slightly creaky freeware versions.

In fact Mosaic Netscape is not turning its back entirely on its uncommercial past. For example, the client software is available now as a beta release for free personal use, and the final product, due out in November, will continue to be available in this way. There will also be a supported, licensed version for commercial use, with prices starting at $99 per user. For information on this, and other aspects of the new software, contact [email protected] or (0101) 415 254 1900.

The company has been quite open about the fact that by seeding the market in this way it hopes to make its money selling copies of Netsite, its HTML server, to companies who wish to provide information and services over the Internet. For example, the Commerce Server version will have additional encryption and security features that work with Netscape to allow commercial transactions to be carried out safely over the Internet. The cost is $5000.

First impressions of using the Windows client (which can be found at ftp://unix.hensa.ac.uk/pub/mosaic.comm.corp/) are extremely favourable. For example, as well as enabling you to read a document while several graphical images are loaded simultaneously, the program lets you break off the download of a page cleanly to follow a link elsewhere. You can also save viewed documents straight to disc (before you often had to reload), and the Bookmarks feature allows favourite places to saved and to be edited far more easily. Although the beta program crashed a few times, in general it was clearly a product with tremendous potential.

Well, at least I was right about that last bit.

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