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Years of transformation: 1993 and Mosaic

Can you remember a milestone year, or moment in your career? Or in the broader landscape of technology? I’ve lived through a few, and perhaps we are living through such a moment right now (I believe so).

And that’s prompted me to look back on milestone years on the path to today’s computing.

Years of Transformation, the series

screenshot of the Mosaic browser showing the Mosaic home page.

Mosaic wasn’t the first GUI web browser–the very first browser, Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT based WorldWideWeb browser (a web based recreation of the UX of which I was involved with at CERN a few years back–you can try that here) was.

NeXT, for those under the age of about 50, was the company Steve Jobs founded having been kicked out of Apple. With his characteristic ambition, Job’s vision was a new type of computer, based on the now nearly ubiquitous but then obscure but powerful UNIX operating system, but with a user friendly graphical user interface.

Both the original web browser and server were written to run on the NexT. The challenge was these were very expensive, and rare (perhaps 50,000 ever sold in total. If the Web needed everyone to own a NeXT box to be a success–well it wasn’t going to be a success.

So, in 1991 Tim Berners-Lee, Henrik Frystyk Nielsen, and Nicola Pellow developed the Line Mode Browser. Again in 2013 I had the privilege of working at CERN on a project to recreate the experience of using this browser in a modern browser so you can experience for yourself what that was like.

This was designed to run on terminals, essentially displays with a keyboard, without, or with minimal processing power themselves, and importantly, no graphics capabilities. The screens displayed only text, in a single monospace font, and were monochrome. But there were orders of magnitude more terminals than NeXT computers–they were ubiquitous in libraries and universities, and well known to the sort of users that the Web was initially designed for.

But while much more widespread than NeXT computers, the rudimentary user experience of these devices, coupled with their need to be connected to powerful and expensive mini and mainframe computers meant the Web was never going to find mainstream adoption until it was available on the sort of computers regular folks used–in particular the Mac and relatively early Windows computers (Windows 3.1 a primitive GUI for PCs was released in 1991, while the Mac as we saw had been around since 1984).

Enter Mosaic.

Now, Mosaic was not the first GUI based web browser, that honour goes to Pei-Yuan Wei, who developed the ViolaWWW browser (he sadly passed away recently) in 1992, or Erwise, released in 1992 as well. But both of these were Unix only, so again, the web was not going to attract mainstream attention on a platform that barely anyone used (today, while you may not know it, almost everyone uses Unix all the time–iOS, Android, Mac OS, all are based on Unix).

Then along came Mosaic. Developed at the NCSA, by Marc Andreesen and Eric Bina, Mosaic too was originally for Unix systems when released in April of 1993. But it was quickly ported to Windows and the Mac later that year. It was also free to use for most purposes, something relatively unusual for software at the time.

The explosion in use of the Web coincided with the launch of Mosaic and is largely attributed to the release of this user friendly GUI based browser for the commonly used platforms of the day, Windows and to a lesser extent (but importantly in contexts like education) the Mac.

Mosaic sat on top of previous transformative technologies we’ve looked at in this series–the PC (compared with a decade before, orders of magnitude more people had access to computers, whether at work, at home, at school or university or in public libraries thanks largely to the PC), the GUI of the Mac (and later Windows with Windows 3.1), and of course the Web. All sitting on top of the internet, whose origins we will have to return to another time.

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