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.


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What was the first World Wide Web browser written for Windows PCs — an application designed for a niche audience you might not expect?

The first Windows browser was the long-since-forgotten Cello, which was written for lawyers.

Most first-generation browsers — Mosaic included — were originally coded for UNIX systems. That’s because almost all the programming was being done by professors and researchers at academic institutions, which were almost exclusively UNIX environments.

Now if there’s any constituency out there that needs reliable, instantaneous access to cross-indexed textual information as much as scientists, it’s lawyers. Case law is every bit as complex as quantum physics, without any of the underlying elegant logic that makes the universe run in tidy fashion.

In the early 1990s, most lawyers — even those working at academic institutions — were using Windows PCs. Thus, Thomas R. Bruce at Cornell Law School wrote a Web browser and Gopher client for Windows, so legal practitioners could get in on the hypertext game. Cello hit the Web on June 8, 1993, whereas Mosaic wouldn’t be Windows compatible until December that same year. Cello’s six month lead time — and its niche audience — wasn’t enough to spare it from obscurity.

In the October 1994 issue of Wired, Gary Wolfe proclaimed that Mosaic was becoming “the world’s standard interface.” It wasn’t just leaving competing browsers in the dust, but sounding the death knell for online intermediary services like AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserve. While Wolfe’s predicted victims didn’t succumb quite so quickly or completely, there is a valid argument to be made that the GUI Web browser is the centralized interface for information exchange today. As more browser-based apps grab a toehold, Wolfe’s suggestion that the browser is the main interface of all mainstream computing tasks could soon be realized.

It’s just likely to be a descendant of Mosaic that realizes the dream of browser supremacy, rather than Mosaic itself. That’s not just sound prognostication, but some hypertextually historic Geek Trivia.

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