The Killer Browser

Just about the only place you could get something to eat at 4 in the morning in Champaign, Ill., in early 1993 was a convenience store called the White Hen Pantry. "It's kind of a Midwest 7-Eleven," says Marc Andreessen, who would often stumble out of his workspace at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at ungodly hours in search of sustenance. Andreessen, 21 years old at the time, and fellow NCSA worker Eric Bina were working on a program they called Mosaic. One night at the White Hen, Andreessen scanned the newsstand and saw the first issue of a magazine called Wired. "I thought, 'Wow, this is pretty interesting stuff'," he recalls of the magazine that promised to treat technology as a cultural breakthrough. "But you know what? The magazine didn't mention the Internet once."

The project that Andreessen and Bina were hatching would change that. Posted on the Internet in beta form--free of charge--in March 1993 and in an official release the following month, Mosaic just may have been the most important computer application ever. It was the first major Web browser, a strange concept at the time because almost no one had ever heard of the Web. The Internet had been around for 20 years, of course, but was known mostly to technically competent students, researchers and government workers. In 1990 Tim Berners-Lee, a British researcher at the CERN physics lab in Geneva, Switzerland, had created a set of technical rules for what he hoped would become a universal Internet document center called the World Wide Web; it was getting some buzz in the research community as a way to digitally distribute papers, but the first browsers were text-based only and hard to use. Andreessen and Bina's program handled graphics and was easy to use.

Mosaic was an instant success online. Within six months more than a million people had downloaded it. A cycle of motion had begun. Before Mosaic, there were only a few hundred Web sites. But when huge numbers of people were able to access colorful pages, there was incentive to create innovative sites. That provided Web surfers with more reason to stay online.

By the end of the year, Mosaic was a phenomenon--but Andreessen himself had left Champaign to seek work in Silicon Valley. He hooked up with entrepreneur Jim Clark, and together they formed Mosaic Communications Co., changing the name to Netscape when the NCSA objected. In a stealth raid, the new company hired a lot of Andreessen's former colleagues back in Illinois, and they set about building a more stable, faster browser.

The message was not lost on the software giant Microsoft, where Bill Gates finally began to listen to the young engineers who had been evangelizing the Internet. By the time Netscape had its historic 1995 IPO--giving birth to the great dot-com boom--Microsoft itself had a browser ready for its new operating system, Windows 95. That was the first shot in the so-called browser wars, a conflict that saw a remarkable explosion of innovation compressed into a brief period of time. Every three or four months an improved version of each company's software would be produced. Ultimately Microsoft, aided by its Windows monopoly, prevailed, and a struggling Netscape was purchased by AOL. The loser was the user, as innovation slowed.

It's often remarked that the impact of hot new technologies is overestimated in the short run and underestimated in the long run. But Mosaic's breakthrough had a quick and thorough impact, changing not only the techno-landscape but affecting the culture at large. Here's how:

It made the Internet into a medium. To be sure, the Internet was poised for explosion anyway in the early 1990s--nothing was going to stop e-mail. But browsers kick-started the process by which vital (and obscure) information found its way onto the Net, and provided a fun way to access it.

It unleashed the commercial potential of the Net. Ten years ago the Internet was a commerce-free zone. Browsers allowed it to become a haven for shopping and business. Yes, things went a bit overboard with the dot-com frenzy, but now it's unimaginable to think of life without going to the Web to buy movie tickets, check scores, see the news and buy books.

It changed our relationship to digital information. Before browsers, the traditional on-screen desktop reflected the essentially static state of the computing environment: users and machines locked together in a virtual cubicle. But beginning with Mosaic, the metaphor changed. Using a computer didn't mean sitting but moving--traveling or "surfing" on a sea of information that existed beyond your personal horizon. The idea was reflected in the names of the browsers that took the baton from Mosaic. Navigator. Explorer. Spyglass. Safari.

Thankfully, there's no back button that would return us to pre-Mosaic days, when browsers were people in (physical) bookstores, and a Web site was home to an arachnid. Andreessen, now chairman of a start-up called Opsware, is still impressed about how his little bit of leverage managed to change the world. "The most satisfying thing was just seeing how we assembled a couple of building blocks that people could then pick up and do things we never anticipated. The process by which the whole thing completely spun out of control was very gratifying." For all of us.