The Web Comes Alive

April 22, 2010

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.

Happy Earth Day!

April 22, 2010

Earth Day, celebrated today in most places (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), is 40 years old.  The first Earth Day, back in 1970, was originally conceived of as an educational event, a “teach in” on environmental issues, and it had a distinctly counter-cultural atmosphere.   I was in high school, and we got off early so we could go around and pick up litter in our town; some people actually did.   Others went down to Washington DC (about 20 miles away) to take part in a large demonstration on the Mall.  I honestly don’t remember how I spent that afternoon.

Today, as the New York Times reports, Earth Day has become a commercial success.  Companies are promoting a wide variety of “green” products.

F. A. O. Schwarz is taking advantage of Earth Day to showcase Peat the Penguin, an emerald-tinted plush toy that, as part of the Greenzys line, is made of soy fibers and teaches green lessons to children. The penguin, Greenzys promotional material notes, “is an ardent supporter of recycling, reusing and reducing waste.”

It is not hard to get a bit cynical about all this: the original noble goal of saving the planet turned into just another marketing opportunity.  But I think that misses a significant part of the point.

Consciousness of environmental issues did not spring into being full-formed in 1970.  People’s awareness that all was not right with the environment had been growing, fueled in part by events like the publication of Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring, in 1963, and the periodic occasions when the Cuyahoga River, in Cleveland, caught fire.  The first Earth Day was in part just a manifestation of growing awareness.

I can remember visiting my grandmother in Pittsburgh, when I was growing up, and seeing the layer of soot and ash on the car when we came outside in the morning.  From the roof of her apartment building, one could see the steel mills churning out huge quantities of noxious fumes.  And, the joke went, if you fell into the Potomac River here in Washington, you didn’t have to worry about toxins; you’d just dissolve before they had a chance to hurt you.

We certainly still have vexing environmental problems, including of course global warming; but some real progress has been made.  The atmosphere in Pittsburgh has improved enormously; one can wear a white shirt without having medium-gray cuffs by lunchtime.  And people actually swim in the Potomac now.

We certainly can’t just rest on our laurels, but we have made progress — which should serve to remind us that change is possible.

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