Recognize the line above? It’s the first website address, created by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Switzerland and launched online in August of 1991. A decade earlier, he had worked at the facility famous for particle physics research and considered hypertext as an effective means of sharing data between researchers. (The innovator behind hypertext is Ted Nelson, whose contribution I will cover in a future post.) Berners-Lee would return to the idea in 1989, by which time CERN’s very busy Internet node was becoming cumbersome to navigate without an effective hierarchical system of organizing and addressing documents. To handle this, he would merge the concept of hypertext with domain name systems and Transmission Control Protocols (TCP) — which allow one to connect to servers — to create an effective solution that would become known as the World Wide Web.
Now, up to this point, most if not all Internet experience was text-oriented, and programs such as Gopher were at the forefront of document searching, retrieval and distribution until HTTP became the dominant protocol. This largely changed because of the work of a University of Illinois college student named Marc Andreesen, who with Eric Bina developed the first user-friendly web browser Mosaic, predecessor to the highly popular Netscape Navigator.
Microsoft would end up licensing Mosaic’s source-code from the university’s off-shoot company, Spyglass Inc., create Internet Explorer, and start the heated browser wars that continued unabated until Google blew everyone out of the water in the late 1990s.
With Mosaic’s creation in 1993, the idea of the Internet as a powerful marketing vehicle began to grow. In November of 1994, the first Internet Marketing Conference was held in San Francisco (and featured Andreesen presciently suggesting that, within five to ten years, the most successful applications would be those that link people together). On December 15, 1994, the Mosaic browser was launched, now renamed Netscape Navigator 1.0. Within a week, over a million copies had been downloaded. With a growing user-base, the strategy of giving away the software for free and selling corporate licenses to businesses became a winning move.
By the fall of 1995, in the wake of Netscape’s very successful IPO, the Silicon Valley experienced a gold rush and young entrepreneurs flocked to the Bay Area. The age of the Internet as a cultural phenomenon was really born then. The IPO triggered a shift in popular consciousness that was required for future companies, like Google, eBay, and Amazon, to become success stories. It also triggered a period of rabid opportunism that would lead to the bubble that burst in 2000.
Netscape as a company was not able to diversify and monetize its mission in a way that Google has been wildly successful at doing, and within three years of the IPO it was clear that the best years were behind it. But one of the legacies often overlooked is that from the start, all of Netscape’s code was open-source. This was radically important as it allowed other programmers to build on the existing framework and boosted a global movement that continues to this day.
The point of reviewing these events is this: To know where we are going, it’s good to know where we have been. Necessity being the mother of invention, in just three years from the birth of ‘www’, a graphical front-end to the Internet spread like wildfire throughout the world. In hindsight, we could say that everybody was ready for this development. The processing power of computers heightened people’s expectations of what systems should provide, and the early joke of the “World Wide Wait” went away with broadband’s ubiquity.
Today, immediacy plays a pivotal role in how we construct our online experience, and colors how we view the innovations developed in that realm. Sadly, we are less concerned with preserving the web’s flexible, egalitarian repository of human knowledge than we are with finding ways to monetize it. This priority shapes the discourse of how the Internet is used, and has been redefining its role in society from being an agent of change to another tool in one’s marketing strategy. For innovation to flourish, both roles have to be understood and respected. Yet too much emphasis on all of us developing online profiles creates the experience of being spectators rather than instigators, which is precisely what both Berners-Lee and Andreesen were acting as at critical moments in their careers.
To innovate effectively within Internet culture means that you have to understand how your choices are shaped by the culture in the first place. This means that you have to craft a relationship that is ‘in” but not “of” the medium, maintaining a creative distance to observe patterns. This is at the heart of the early web story. Not the remarkable acceleration of the browser’s assimilation into contemporary life, but the way successful innovators were continually sensing and responding to the nascent culture. This was the way the best became instigators. This is the lesson we need to remember.