Web Browsers - an Historical Overview Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Web Browsers - an Historical Overview

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You may not know what the term 'web browser' means, but you probably use one on a regular basis - in fact, you are presumably using one right now1. The browser is the piece of software that is drawing this web page on your screen. It probably also provides a box for you to type in an address, and a set of buttons for going back; going forward again; reloading the page; stopping it doing what it's doing to do something else; and so forth. If you look further, it probably keeps track of the 'history' of which sites you've visited to date, lets you store some kind of 'bookmarks' or 'favourites', and much more besides. But in the beginning, browsers did none of those things, and their history is an interesting one.

In the Beginning was the WorldWideWeb

In 1990, a researcher named Tim Berners-Lee, based in the Computer Services section of the European Particle Physics Laboratory (more commonly referred to as CERN2) invented a system which allowed users to access documents on a networked computer using what is known as hypertext. He called it WorldWideWeb3; WWW is the more common abbreviation today, but W3 is the one used by its creators.

Hypertext - the concept of text which contained basic formatting information and links to other pieces of text - wasn't in itself a new idea, and many alternative implementations were developed around this time. However, the Web, as it is now known, was a fairly elegant version, and was a big advance on previous ways of using the Internet, which had generally involved manually requesting one document at a time. Coupled with the already established reputation of CERN, this ensured a rapid interest from researchers around the world.

As part of the original WorldWideWeb project, Tim Berners-Lee created the world's first web browser software, and very nice it was too. In fact, there are some features of this original software that few modern browsers support, such as its built-in WYSIWYG4 editing abilities, but it had one major problem: it was written for a particular kind of computer called the 'NeXT' - which was fine to use, but not all that common. So enthusiasts interested in spreading the concept of the web began to develop their own browsers using the standards invented by Berners-Lee and his colleagues. A purely text-based 'line-mode' browser was made, which could be made to run on almost any kind of computer, but like many of the early efforts, it wasn't all that easy to use.

Mosaic - the Pattern of the Modern Browser

The user-unfriendliness of early browsers was probably the key factor which stopped the full potential of the Web being realised straight away. This obstacle was finally removed in 1993 with the release of a new browser named 'Mosaic'. Developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois, Mosaic was written with the specific goal of making using the web a more pleasant experience. Featuring a clean but usable point-and-click interface, and developed to work on Unix, Macintosh and Windows (although some differences existed between these three parallel versions), it certainly succeeded in that goal.

Looking at it from a modern perspective, the original Mosaic seems positively medieval. Although a box displays your current location, there is no way to type there - for that you have to go into a menu and bring up the appropriate dialogue box. Once in this dialogue, you are not presented, as you might expect, with the current address to edit, let alone a list of recent pages - instead you can pick any of the pages in your 'hotlist'. This was an early precursor of bookmarks, in that you could add any page you were currently viewing to your hotlist by selecting the appropriate menu item. Mosaic provided none of the bookmark management tools which would come later - in fact the only way to do so much as delete a page from your hotlist was to manually edit the program's settings file!

The Children of Mosaic

After its initial success, so many people were interested in Mosaic that the NCSA began selling licences for other developers to build their own products around the original code. There was a huge amount of enthusiasm for such projects, and many companies bought these licences hoping for big returns. One of these, Spyglass Inc, seemed a marginal player at the time, but their aim of relicensing their product to yet further companies will become significant later.

Perhaps ironically, though, the most important descendant of Mosaic was the only one which didn't bother buying a licence. Amidst all the excitement of the third-party developments, the original programmers of Mosaic began to go their separate ways. But then one of them, Marc Andreessen, met up with Jim Clark, who had made a huge amount of money from his previous company5, and decided to start up a company to develop his own browser. However, since he wrote Mosaic himself, he decided he didn't need the original code to work on, only the ideas, and so hired a selection of his previous colleagues to found Mosaic Communications Corporation and build 'Mosaic Netscape'. Essentially reworking the original concept of Mosaic from scratch, Netscape was soon to become the leader in the field.

The Rise and Fall of Netscape

The first release of Mosaic Netscape was a huge success, and although the name was almost immediately changed for legal reasons, the product survived while its rivals disappeared into obscurity. Part of the key to this was that it used its initial position to literally set the standards for others to follow. On the web, pages are formatted using a special language called HTML, and at the end of 1994, when the first version of Netscape appeared, it was pretty basic. Later versions of Netscape recognised more and more complicated formatting, defined by Netscape's developers. There was no standard definition of how these new parts of HTML should work, so if a page was written with Netscape's formatting in mind, it was best to view it with Netscape. Since it was a nice program to use anyway, this suited most users fine, making it the browser that all others had to copy6.

And so things remained for some time, but the downfall of Netscape, like that of so many others before and since, was Microsoft. Having initially ignored the growth of the Web, Microsoft found itself in the unwelcome position of lagging behind in the fastest developing area of computing. This is where Spyglass Inc re-enter our story - it was their technology that Microsoft licensed to create the initially unremarkable Internet Explorer. Initially the only noteworthy thing about Internet Explorer was that it was free, for everybody. This was a clever trick on two fronts: firstly, Microsoft's licence agreement with Spyglass was based on a small sum up front, plus a percentage of profits made on each copy sold - any percentage of 0 is, of course, 0; and secondly, they could spend as much money as they liked developing this for free, funded by other products, whereas Netscape relied on revenue directly from their browser. Coupled with the existing popularity of Windows, with which Microsoft began to include Internet Explorer, this marked the beginning of the end for Netscape's dominance. By version 3 (released in 1996, a year after version 1), Internet Explorer was a viable alternative to Netscape, and Microsoft began to use the same tactics as Netscape had earlier to 'lock' users into their version of HTML. By 1998, Microsoft looked to be cornering the market, and Netscape was forced to try a new direction.

Mozilla: the Beginning of a New Generation?

In April 1998, Netscape Communications Corp. released the source code7 of what would have been Netscape Communicator 5.0 to the public. The idea was to let volunteers from all around the world write the best browser they possibly could, with the results being fed back as the basis of new versions of Netscape software. The result was Mozilla - named after Netscape's original code-name, and the mascot in the first years of the company. Since the source code released was incomplete - being only those parts solely owned by Netscape - and not entirely well-written, much of it was re-written from scratch. Four years later, version 1.0 was finally ready, and instantly presented a stable, powerful alternative to Internet Explorer. Mozilla incorporates many advanced features, such as tabbed browsing and a 'skinnable' interface, but one of its strongest points was its adherence to standard HTML, as defined by the W3C - a departure from the previous competitive approach to formatting used by the major players.

There is now a growing wave of browsers based on this philosophy - most obviously other browsers based on Mozilla's layout system (known as 'Gecko'), such as the smaller Firefox, which is a redesign of Mozilla's web browser component without the associated e-mail and chat programs and other components that make the full Mozilla use up your computer's resources. Apple, who have recently begun basing much of their technology on Open Source software, have now released their own browser for their MacOS X operating system. Called Safari, it is based on another Open Source project, and offers further evidence that open, standards-based systems may be the next revolution in browser usage.

Completing the Picture: Non-Mosaic Browsers

Although this article has focused on the story of the most popular browsers, it is worth noting that some alternatives have stood the test of time. The most notable of these is probably Opera, which was developed from scratch at the Norwegian phone company for internal use. It continues to be popular for its inclusion of advanced features not found in other browsers8. It is even more portable than Netscape/Mozilla, with versions readily available for over half a dozen systems, and it would be foolish to overlook its potential when considering the future of browser technology.

The other important browser which fits nowhere in this family tree is perhaps as different as it is possible to get from NCSA Mosaic, since it uses no graphics whatsoever. The browser in question is Lynx, although there are less well-known contenders to the text-based browser crown. Lynx itself was originally developed as part of a different, but similar, system invented around the same time as the Web, but when its designers saw the potential of Web technology, they replaced parts of its code with code that dealt with the standards created by Tim Berners-Lee, thus creating a simple but flexible text-based web browser.

But why would you want to specifically not have graphics? Although the advantages of a graphical interface are fairly obvious, they do come at a price: firstly, they require more processing power on the part of your computer, in order to output the appropriate graphics. And secondly, they have to be used on the system they were designed for, so that they can make use of its commands to draw common elements (or even the ability to draw at all). A text-based browser, on the other hand, can be used on any computer with some form of screen and keyboard - or even over a remote connection, such as Telnet. For these reasons - and because geeks will be geeky - Lynx and other text-based browsers are still in wide-spread use today. Web designers should be particularly aware of this when formatting their pages - so that they work, and look good, for everyone.

Further Reading

1That is, assuming you're not using h2g2 Mobile - if you're viewing this using a computer or a TV, you'll be using some form of browser.2Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire3The spaces between words were added later.4What You See Is What You Get5Silicon Graphics, Inc - the computer graphics company.6This can be seen in 'user-agent strings' which a web browser identifies itself with when it requests a page. Netscape used its code-name, 'Mozilla', for this identification, and soon its rivals all copied this so that servers would give them the version of a page intended for Netscape users. The practice continues today, with the real name of many browsers only being given in brackets afterwards.7Essentially, the 'source code' is the program as originally written, as opposed to the 'object code' which you can install and run, but not work on.8Note, however, that some of these are being included in the recent open source projects like Mozilla.

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