In addition to being Earth Day, today, as an article at Wired reminds us, is the anniversary of the first release of the Mosaic Web browser back in 1993. It is perhaps hard to imagine now, but back then the Internet was something of a curiosity. The Web was in its very early stages; people still used an older document distribution service called Gopher.
Mosaic, created at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications [NCSA], was the first browser that allowed for integration of text and graphics on a single page (rather than treating graphics as separate objects). The initial version was available only for Unix machines, but versions for Windows and the Mac were released later that year. It rapidly became a hit.
It was then that the excitement really began to spread. Mosaic made the web come to life with color and images, something that, for many people, finally provided the online experience they were missing. It made the web a pleasure to use.
It was estimated that, within about a year after Mosaic was released, that Web traffic had increased by a factor of about 10,000.
Both the contenders in the original “browser wars” were in some sense descendants of Mosaic. The NCSA project leader for Mosaic, Marc Andreessen, founded Mosaic Communications, later renamed Netscape Communications, in 1993, together with Jim Clark, co-founder of Silicon Graphics. The Netscape Navigator browser was the market leader until it was displaced by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which was also a descendant of the original Mosaic via Spyglass Inc. Netscape foundered, and was acquired by AOL. A re-write of the browser, starting from the Netscape code base, ultimately produced Mozilla Firefox, which has regained significant market share from Internet Explorer.
It has been astonishing to see how the Web has developed, over a relatively short period, from a technical curiosity to (among other things) an applications platform (“Cloud computing”) as well as a pervasive cultural influence. Mosaic was in many ways the first step in that journey.