Fifteen years ago next week, the first mainstream World Wide Web browser, Mosaic, was released to the public. On April, 22, 1993, lead programmers Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina offered up Mosaic under some of the most generous terms possible for a non-shareware or freeware program. Over the next year, browsing the World Wide Web quickly began its transformation from fringe techie pastime to hub of contemporary culture and communication.
Yeah, we said Mosaic wasn't shareware or freeware. It also wasn't open source, despite what some folks will tell you. The U.S. National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) always retained rights to the code, because Andreessen and Bina wrote the original browser, NCSA Mosaic, for the agency. These Mosaic-equals-open source myths got started because Mosaic was almost totally free-for-use to noncommercial users — the average college professor or computer enthusiast — and the source code was available for noncommercial tinkering to anyone who wanted to program on the UNIX X-Windows platform, for which Mosaic was originally designed. But there were usage restrictions, even for noncommercial consumers.
By the end of 1993, Mosaic had been ported to the Commodore Amiga, Apple Macintosh, and Windows PC operating systems, and that's when things got really interesting. You'll note that Windows, Mac, Amiga, and X-Windows are all graphic user interface (GUI) operating systems, and Mosaic was the first successful Web browser to be GUI-friendly and available on all the major GUI platforms of the day. This, more than anything, led to its successful adoption, and by extension, the relative popularization of the Web.
Mosaic is also a direct ancestor of the major browsers that succeeded and superseded it in the marketplace. Andreessen, for those that don't know, left NCSA and formed Mosaic Communications, which became Netscape Communications, originator of the Netscape browser. Spyglass, meanwhile, licensed NCSA Mosaic technology to build its own browser, Spyglass Mosaic. Spyglass then re-licensed its Mosaic to Microsoft, who turned it into Internet Explorer. Netscape lost the market battle with IE, so they turned it into an open source project called Mozilla, which produced the Firefox browser.
Thus, Mosaic is in some respects the most influential Web application ever created. But that doesn't mean it deserves every accolade heaped upon it. For example, despite what you may have heard, Mosaic was not the first PC browser — that title belongs to another long-forgotten app written for a niche audience you wouldn't expect.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST WORLD WIDE WEB BROWSER FOR WINDOWS?
Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can also follow him on his personal blog.