Editor’s note: April 22, 1993, is widely regarded as the day on which a number of people, including Marc Andreessen, who went on to help found Netscape, produced Mosaic — the ground-breaking Web browser. But was it really the first? To mark the 10th anniversary, Local Tech Wire asked one of the pioneers in Internet development — Paul Jones — to talk about the rise of the browser and how the technology transformed the Internet. Jones, who is director of ibiblio.org, a project that includes the Site Formerly Known as MetaLab and SunSITE, The Public’s Library, has some very interesting observations.I don’t mean to spoil the party, but the geek in me is forcing me to tell the cold unsociable truth – Mosaic, the browser that taught us the World Wide Web, is neither the first web browser nor is it the best. To make matters even more, well uncomfortable, I believe that Mosaic was a serious step in the wrong direction.

The web seems wild and wide open now, but yes it was once designed to be more so. Believe it or not – the Web was designed for connectivity for all users, not just for publishers or information providers and it allowed the person browsing to create pages and links quickly and easily. The first web browser was about sociability and the interchange of ideas, not just delivery of linked pages.

The real “Tucker” of Web browsers was the browser developed at CERN -where the web itself was developed – for the NeXT computer. The CERN
Browser allowed not only web page browsing, but also WYSIWYG page creation and the ability to create links by simply highlighting text on a browsed page and linking that text to a page under construction by an easy click.

The Hypermedia Browser also called Nexus and for a while called
WorldWideWeb was written by none other than Tim Berners-Lee in 1990 and released in Christmas of that year. The focus of Tim’s Browser was collaboration and mutual linking as reflected by the ease with which pages could be produced and links made between pages.

I created my own first web page with only a few seconds instruction from Tim and a look at his demo age (a copy of which can be found at www.ibiblio.org/pjones/old.page.html ).

For Tim’s own description of the first Browser as well as screen shots of the browser in action see www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/WorldWideWeb.html

More participation

Notice that the Web in Tim’s vision, as seen in his browser, was to be about active participation and creation of shared linked pages.

Mosaic did have its moment of promoting collaboration. In Mosaic 1.2, the Group Annotations feature allowed readers of pages to add notes to those pages. This innovation was a precursor to the message boards, discussion groups and blogs of today. The nice thing about Group Annotations was the ease in which you could make notes for other group members. Even better Annotations in Mosaic supported both text and audio comments.

Although Annotations would eventually collapse due to their
over-popularity (and unscalable protocol design), the feature did manage to keep part of the dream of a sociable Web alive. But with the release of Mosaic 2.0 in September 1993, the folks at NCSA’s System development Group decided to kill Group Annotations “initially” which turned out to be forever. (See
target=”_blank”>archive.ncsa.uiuc.edu/SDG/Software/Mosaic/Docs/group-annotations.html for NCSA’s description of Annotations and their brief tale of their depreciation.)

‘A nice piece of work …’

The Mosaic that finally appeared in September 1993 was a nice piece of work. Mostly the same on all platforms. Mostly standards based (ignoring the poorly implemented IMG tag). Mostly developed in response to user comments and based on wide-ranging beta tests. The team at NCSA lead by Joseph Hardin did a fine job, but the vision that had been provided by Tim Berners-Lee was depreciated greatly and the prototype Tim provided with his Nexus browser was largely ignored.

Tools have their way of defining us and defining our next tools as well. The Web became more of an encyclopedia than a town hall with Mosaic and in that we are all made a little less by it.

Paul Jones is Clinical Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Clinical Associate Professor in the School of Information and Library Science, and Director of ibiblio.org You can contact him at pjones@ibiblio.org