Mosaic at Twenty

Nobody’s exactly sure when Mosaic, the first popular web browser, was released. Wikipedia cites April 22, 1993 as the date of the 1.0 release, but other sources place the 1.0 date in November 1993. Either way, this software release changed the world.

It’s not surprising that the release date is hazy, because NCSA Mosaic was an open source project (not officially “Open Source” because that term hadn’t been codified yet, but generally open source in that the software was openly shared and cooperatively developed). Like most open source projects, Mosaic was born gradually and irregularly, and crept into popularity via endless variations of beta versions. I remember first hearing of Mosaic at my computer programming job by the summer of 1993. One year later, every single person in the world, including my parents and grandparents, had heard of it (though few yet had access to it, instead using Compuserve or America Online, if anything at all, to experiment with the new fad generally known as “going online”).

Mosaic changed everything. After Mosaic, Compuserve and America Online began their slow death spirals, because Mosaic established the public Internet — that TCP-IP thing, based in universities, research centers and corporations — over direct-dial alternatives. Once Mosaic took off, the web craze took off, and (as your grandparents with their Facebook accounts know) the craze has never slowed down. Blame it on Mosaic.

Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina’s Mosaic project was built upon the basis of an earlier invention, Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web. But Berners-Lee’s WWW was only one of several popular Internet access protocols by early 1993, competing with telnet, FTP, Archie, Gopher, Veronica and WAIS, There was also Usenet, the Internet’s first massively social phenomenon, which was already by 1993 an essential forum for those who could reach it. It was not at all clear which protocol would dominate.

If you wanted to reach the WWW in early 1993, you probably used Lynx, a text browser created by the University of Kansas. Lynx was an excellent piece of software (I used it to launch Literary Kicks), but you needed to have a Unix or Linux terminal to run Lynx, and most people didn’t have Unix or Linux terminals. Also, Lynx suffered from a “robbie-the-robot” kind of look that could never gain wide acceptance.

Two brilliant innovations made Mosaic a rollicking success:

1. It ran on anything, including Microsoft Windows, Apple Macintosh, Unix/Linux X Windows. It was easy to find and install for all of these platforms, and the high quality of the releases led to very wide acceptance. (Indeed, high quality software is always the key to success in open source development.)

2. Mosaic displayed graphics. Before Mosaic, .gif and .jpg were not on the map, and there was no telling what an “<img>” tag might do on a web page. It might trigger an image download, or display a small ‘[x]’. Mosaic’s great innovation was to simply display the images on the page, in place and in context.

Suddenly the World Wide Web looked good. Now, telnet and FTP and Archie and Gopher and Veronica and WAIS didn’t have a chance.

As Mosaic spread to every PC and Mac and Linux and Unix terminal in the world, Tim Berners-Lee’s larger WWW proiect began breaking for the first time beyond science and research communities. The web became entertainment, and publishing, and news, and commerce, and art, and community. Suddenly the twin standards of HTTP and HTML began to emerge as the most important communication standards in the world. Many technical innovations made this all happen, but it was an artistic innovation — the inclusion of images — that catalyzed wide acceptance for the web.

Since this moment right now is roughly somewhere around the 20th anniversary of Mosaic’s emergence in the world, and since I’ve always enjoyed discussing Internet history, I’m planning to devote a couple of blog posts in the next couple of weeks to the 20th anniversary of the web’s popularity explosion, and the 20th anniversary of the Mosaic web browser. I’d like to explore a few unusual angles about this topic.

Mosaic is long dead and gone — I don’t even think you can install a Mosaic browser anymore. But the history of Mosaic is the history of a certain technological awakening in the world. There is much to notice and enjoy in recounting the bygone moments when everybody in the world saw the World Wide Web for the first time.

2 Responses

  1. Ah, to go back to a command
    Ah, to go back to a command line prompt, straight C code and a Solaris workstation….

    I had a Compuserve account. And a Hayes modem – remember those? And in those days we dialed in to stuff. Then came WWW and Mosaic, and don’t forget Netscape, which was crushed to death by Microsoft giving away IE for free. Zip files! Usenet! Early versions of LitKicks – back when newspapers used to publish the addresses of interesting web sites. Newspapers!

    I remember in ’93, ’94 trying to find an Internet Service Provider – remember? I hooked up with a guy operating out of his garage. Then it became big biz. But for a brief, shining moment, it was Haight-Ashbury all over again, except with computers.

    Unix, C++, Windows – for a brief time if you had those skills you were a master of the universe. Startups that banished suits and ties except for the sales dudes!

    And the beat continues to go on.

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