Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Web browsing is 20 years old.

What were you doing 20 years ago? Chances are, you weren’t spending as much time on the net as you are now. blog.mindrocketnow.com
Remember me?

Happy Birthday to the first web browser for the rest of us, Netscape Navigator! The public beta version 0.9 was released on this day in 1994, and ushered in the Internet age. Until this point, the Internet was much more about file transfers between computers over FTP or gopher, than rendering web pages using HTML and JPEG. Once you downloaded Navigator, you could read posts in bulletin boards, exchange ASCII art in FTP, and browse to one of the first 2738 web sites.

The first sites set the tone for the content of the Internet to come, a mix of useful and useless, valuable and valueless, sites to cater to every taste, sites such as (broken links in italics):
  • ·       The Amazing Fish Cam http://wp.netscape.com/fishcam/fishcam.html  - noted by the Economist for its “audacious uselessness”
  • ·       Birmingham City Council http://assist.cs.bham.ac.uk:8080/ - originally hosted by the University of Birmingham
  • ·       The Economist –cost $120 to build
  • ·       Lycos - search engine born out of a university research project
  • ·       Pizza Hut – back in 1994 only delivered to Santa Cruz, California
  • ·       Powells.com – online book store pre-dating Amazon.com
  • ·       Sex.com – subject of one of the first high-profile cyber court cases over disputed domains. There was big money at stake: in 1995 it was making up to $500,000 per month on advertising, and the loser in the law case still hasn’t paid his $67M judgement.
  • ·       The Simpsons Archive – a first example of a fan site
  • ·       Yahoo! – still had the exclamation mark at that point

Yahoo! still had the ! in 1994

By the end of 1994, the number of web sites had grown to over 10,000. In September 2014, that number reached 1,000,000,000. (A propos nothing, there have been two years where the number of web sites has actually decreased – 2010 and 2013. However, the decrease in 2013 was preceded by an increase of 101% in 2012, the fastest growth year since 2000. I can’t find any reason for this fluctuation – leave me a comment if you know why.)

The press release for Navigator is full of youthful promise, and is unusual because the promise was realised beyond all expectations. Navigator was free (for personal use, $99 for commercial use) because it “[built upon] the tradition of software products for the Internet being offered free of charge”. This tradition continues to trouble digital media companies who can’t afford to write off their Internet offerings against margin on physical sales, because there are no physical sales any more. Few would have thought that commerce could exist without physical product when Navigator was laying “the foundation for commerce on the net”.

Navigator offered a raft of technology advances: it was “optimized to run smoothly over 14.4 kilobit/second modems”; it “[delivered] security features such as encryption and server authentication [for] … commercial services” – both because Netscape realised that the value of the Internet lay in shopping. It had “continuous document streaming, enabling users to interact with documents while they are still being downloaded” and “multiple, simultaneous network accesses, allowing several documents or images to be downloaded simultaneously” because the World Wide Wait was already a bugbear of the Internet.

The ultimate legacy of Navigator is the democratisation of the Internet.  Its introduction marks the beginning of the third industrial revolution – the start of information itself having a value. The hope was that “Netscape [would] help bring more people on the Internet”. It certainly did that. And the people who came next, and continue to come every day, make the Internet life-changing.

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