Legacy: A brave new World Wide Web
By Mike Yamamoto
To those who know Jon Mittelhauser, a founding father of the Web browser, it comes as no surprise that he labels one of the 20th century's most significant inventions as simply an "inevitable technology."
True to his pragmatic Midwestern background, the former University of Illinois researcher assumed that it was only a matter of time before something would be created to make the Internet's trove of information available to the masses. Serendipity determined that it would be Mosaic, the browser application that he developed with Marc Andreessen and a handful of other 20-somethings in 1993.
Ten years after Mosaic's first version was released, he is still trying to fathom the importance of the browser born in the nondescript labs of the university's National Center for Supercomputing Applications. That may be an exercise in futility, given the magnitude of the subject, for the modern concept of the Internet would not exist if the browser had remained in the exclusive realm of academia.
The unassuming piece of software revolutionized high technology akin to the way the remote control reinvented television, but in manifold more dimensions with universal consequences. In roughly six months of 1995, Mosaic transformed the Internet from the esoteric province of researchers and technophiles to a household appliance, creating a multibillion-dollar industry and changing the way society works, communicates and even falls in love--in short, affecting nearly every facet of life.
Roughly 553 million people have Internet access worldwide, according to Jupiter Research. The Harris Poll estimates that two-thirds of all adults, or 137 million, are online in the United States.
At least 75 percent of all households connected to the Net use e-mail, Nielsen/NetRatings estimates, and more than 40 percent of the U.S. online population uses instant messaging.
Consumers spent nearly $13.7 billion online in the last holiday shopping season, a rise of 24 percent from the previous year, according to a report by the Goldman Sachs Group and other research firms.
Three years after the dot-com meltdown, spending on information technology is still expected to exceed $2 trillion this year, up nearly 5 percent from 2002, according to the Gartner Group, a figure in line with other reports.
The browser's effects can even be seen in global conflicts, including the U.S. war on Iraq. The federal government reported that more than a third of the Internet population, or 44.9 million people, visited its Web sites in February alone--a rise of 26 percent from December 2002, attributed to national and international events.
"It resulted in an incredible empowerment of the individual on a worldwide basis," said Brad Silverberg, managing partner of venture capital group Ignition Partners and formerly a key executive in Microsoft's crusade against Netscape Communications, who compared the browser to the railroad as a historical milestone. "It cut through the complexity of the PC. Previously the PC was the province of a certain class of businesspeople."
"No fact is ever lost. Obscure texts, not to mention musical recordings, are almost as easy to retrieve as today's local newspaper," said Andy Oram of technology publisher O'Reilly & Associates, who is a member of the activist group Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. "Every organization has to have a Web site, and by now an organization would be considered some kind of suspicious, underground entity if it doesn't."
Despite all the achievements, however, everyone who observed or was involved in the creation of the early browsers agrees that their true legacy has yet to materialize. Any definitive historical assessment will not be possible for years if not decades, until a full generation that grew up with the Web has matured.
"Technology goes in shifts of 25-year cycles. It takes a new generation of people for a medium to have its own identity," said Andreessen, long a poster boy for the Mosaic and Netscape browsers he helped create. "If someone is 20 today, that means they have been using the Web since they were 10 or 12 years old. It's like the difference between those who grew up with television, telephones and cars and those who didn't."
Evidence of this tectonic change can be seen at the earliest stages of childhood for those growing up in a household with a computer connected to the Web. Elementary games and PC-resembling toys are being marketed at toddlers 2 years old or even younger, making the computer a staple in the home from the time they begin to develop their cognitive and motor skills.
The result, behavioral psychologists believe, will be a new thought pattern influenced by the Web that was unimaginable only a decade ago but accepted as natural human development by coming generations.
It is in this type of virtual interaction that many believe the browser and its offshoot technologies will eventually have the greatest impact on society. Academic researchers have begun to identify new ways that the Web generation behaves based on its exposure to the Net. Unlike their unwired parents, for example, teenagers often rely on Web communities to socialize and even vet new acquaintances by reputation--part of the reason some have dubbed them "Generation ICQ."
"Different people use different means to socialize online. We see this as very important, especially among younger females," said Lisa Strand, chief analyst of Nielsen/NetRatings. "Sites targeted toward socialization--chat, greeting cards, matchmaking services--are growing faster than the overall growth rate of the Web."
And to companies, understanding how youths think and act is key to the future of many businesses online and off. Not surprisingly, software monolith Microsoft is on the leading edge of such efforts, targeting a teen population that is expected to reach 34 million by 2010, while accounting for up to 33 percent of all U.S. retail spending, according to retail consultancy America's Research Group.
"This customer wants to socialize instead of communicate," Tammy Savage, group manager of Microsoft's NetGen division, said in a recent interview. "They want to do things together and get things done--and they really want to meet new people. They have a way of vouching for each other as friends, figuring out who to trust and not trust."
That kind of group interaction based on Web connections will translate into a different way of doing business when these youths reach adulthood. Here again, the browser has been the catalyst for a new way of doing things, through a multimedia environment that allows detailed and elaborate collaboration on projects.
Kim Polese, an early Java developer and founder of software company Marimba, said this evolution had already begun but would become far more significant in future years with the rising use of other forms of Internet technologies such as peer-to-peer file sharing, instant messaging and media playing--all of which owe their beginnings to the browser.
Others believe that the Net generation has been influenced in even more fundamental ways where business is concerned, having been instilled with a sense of entrepreneurship and independence born from the dot-com era that continues today.
"I was talking to a young guy running a fantasy baseball league as a business. Not once did he mention the Web, but it was totally clear that it was his mechanism for distribution, payment, recruitment," said Shirky, who counts venture capitalism among the many roles he has played in the Internet business. "For solo actors, the Web has been an astonishing inspiration."
Andreessen and his old colleague Mittelhauser see this as a natural outgrowth of the Heartland values shared by those who developed Mosaic, part of a geek ethos rooted in the early days of the personal computer that was popularized well beyond technology during the Internet gold rush.
"There is a long history in the Valley of practical people in engineering," Andreessen said. "It's part of the Midwest ethic of egalitarianism."
Even today, long after the so-called browser wars were presumed dead, this philosophy continues among developers. Those dedicated to "open source" software--perhaps the most egalitarian technology of all--hope to further the original Mosaic cause through their Mozilla browser project.
"The Web is becoming increasingly integrated into our lives as more and more critical financial, health and other personal information is managed through Web-based transactions. Browsers are the mechanism through which individual human beings access and manage this digital data," the Mozilla Organization states on its site. "New innovations should be judged on their own merits, on their ability to benefit human beings, and not solely by their effect on the business plans of one or even a few companies."
Then, with a utopian optimism worthy of Aldous Huxley, the site beckons, "Come join us."
News.com's John Borland contributed to this report.
Mosaic co-developer Marc Andreessen and his cohorts at the NCSA were some of the minds behind the technology that revolutionized the Internet. What are the browser pioneers doing now?