Happy Birthday, Mosaic 1.0. You're a perfect 10!

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Tipacanoe

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Apr. 21, 2003. 07:52 AM
RACHEL ROSS
TORONTO STAR

I remember my first time.

A few boys from the University of Toronto took me to one of the computer labs. We did it there.

It was electric. It changed my life.

Sure, I'd used the Internet before. But never like that.

Surfing the Internet with the Mosaic browser was like searching for the right dress with a personal shopper, instead of perusing the mall on your own. Suddenly, it was so much easier to find what I wanted.

There wasn't much of an Internet to browse back then. In the early nineties, the World Wide Web was made up of an only a couple hundred Web servers. But Mosaic made the Internet so easy to use, it was clear that this was just the start of something big.

This week marks the tenth anniversary of Mosaic 1.0: an Internet browser that changed the course of computing history by making the online world truly accessible. You may not have used Mosaic, but you've probably used a browser based on the software.

Despite its impact, Mosaic's beginnings were humble. Mosaic started out as a project by a couple of students at the University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina wanted to write software that could easily navigate the linked information system invented by Tim Berners-Lee. He originally called his linked-documents scheme Mesh, but later gave decided on the more grandiose title of the World Wide Web.

A handful of browsers were developed to read these linked, hypertext documents.

But the early browsers were designed to run on computers running Unix, an operating system that was only popular in academic circles. Even if you had Unix, these early browsers were very difficult to use unless you were already adept at computing.

Users had to type in cryptic commands.

That all changed in 1993 when Mosaic was first released. Unlike previous browsers, Mosaic had a graphical user interface with click-able buttons for important functions.

The Mosaic browser also made the Internet look a lot better. With other browsers, a user could only view images separately from the rest of the Web site. Mosaic brought images and text together on one page.

Andreessen, Bina and their growing team at the NCSA also made it a priority to produce Mosaic browsers for Windows and Macintosh computers, the operating systems found on most home computers. Finally, the masses could log on.

Within weeks of Mosaic's 1.0 release, thousands of people were using it.

It wasn't long before Andreessen realized his idea had real potential in the private sector. So he and some of the other NCSA programmers who had worked on Mosaic formed a spin-off company called Mosaic Communications Corp.

In November, 1994, Mosaic Communications released its first, commercial version of the Mosaic browser. They called it Navigator. In the year that followed, some 8 million copies were in use.

Andreessen was fast becoming a legend.

(It's amusing to read a copy of Andreessen's Web site from the previous year. The man we now think of as one of the most influential computer scientists of our time, was begging for "job offers for large sums of money in exotic, faraway lands" such as Texas.)

The University, however, was a bit unhappy with Andreessen. The school had already trademarked the name Mosaic, so they weren't thrilled about Andreessen using the name for his spin-off company.

Ultimately, Andreessen was forced to rename his company Netscape Communications Corp.

Andreessen and his team continued on unabated, adding fresh features to the next version of their Internet browser in 1995. This new version supported audio, for example, so World Wide Web pages viewed in Netscape could not only be seen, but also heard.

A language called JavaScript was also supported, which meant people could do far more complicated things on their Web site. Move your mouse and an image might change from a cat to a dog! It was truly the magic age of the Internet.

For a time, Netscape's Navigator browser was the way to surf the Web. Microsoft Corp. was characteristically slow to enter the browser market.

They were too busy building their own little corner of the Internet, called MSN. But once Microsoft execs realized that the Netscape browser might threaten their software throne, they dove in with both feet.

Microsoft rapidly produced its own browser, Internet Explorer, and gave it away free to anyone who wanted it.

A lot of people who didn't want Internet Explorer got it too, because the company included the browser software with its Windows operating system.

Netscape had a try-before-you-buy policy, which meant businesses had to pay for the browser.

But the MountainView, Ca., company hung in for awhile as the top dog in the browser battle, largely because Internet Explorer didn't have as many features.

As Internet Explorer gradually added more functionality and more people bought new computers with Internet Explorer already installed, the market began to split between the two rival companies.

Geeks such as myself got rather fervent about their browser of choice. I had many a heated argument over which browser was better. I fought on the side of Netscape for many, many years. It was like arguing about religion — people didn't tend to change their minds.

Ultimately, Netscape's supremacy waned. Even waiving the price of the browser couldn't help them retain top position in the browser market.

Some say Netscape let too much time lapse before introducing new versions; some say that the browser company was mismanaged by America Online Inc., which purchased Netscape Communications in 1998.

Others argue that Microsoft simply didn't fight fair. They liken the browser wars to the VCR-Betamax battle, noting that the best technology doesn't always win the popular vote.

The University of Illinois's Mosaic project kept going for years after Andreessen left.

But in January, 1997, the software development division of the NCSA announced it would no longer be supporting Mosaic. The team was moving on, "to concentrate on other areas of interest", according to an NCSA memo.

You can still download the Mosaic software at ftp://ftp.ncsa.uiuc.edu/Mosaic if you want to take a trip down memory lane and surf the Internet the old-fashioned way.

I might break out my ancient dial-up modem too, in honour of those early days of the Internet and the anniversary of such pioneering software.

Few things have changed the course of computing history as much as Mosaic.

Rachel Ross deconstructs technology Mondays in @Biz. Reach her at [email protected]

:cool:
 
Joined
Dec 12, 2000
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176
Gosh! when I first read this topic's title I thought it was our Mo's birthday.
 
Joined
Aug 20, 2001
Messages
651
A very nice history lesson:) It's nice to know what was going on while I was in primary school grasping the concept of the Times Tables. And even now I only know up to 12 x 12 = 144. :)
 

Tipacanoe

Thread Starter
Joined
Feb 7, 2001
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852
I am glad that you enjoyed the article AtreideS.

It is good to celebrate inventions like Mosaic.

It is good to remember that wonderful things like PC's and browsers can have their beginnings with young people just looking for practical solutions to problems that fascinate them.

Thanks for your note.

I know you are finding other good stuff on our site.

:cool: :) :cool:
 
Joined
Aug 20, 2001
Messages
651
Well at Uni in my Discrete Maths lecture each week we get a 5 minute history lesson on someone to do with Computer Science. So far we've only really learnt about the forefathers of computers such as Charles Babbage, which is all quite entertaining. But I must say looking at more recent things such as Mosiac is a bit more interesting.:) I don't mind older history, but things that happened 10 years ago are much easier to look at and say "hey I can see how that changed how we do this." And that makes it more interesting to me.:)
 
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