Mosaic started Web rush, Internet boom

Mosaic started Web rush, Internet boom

Eric Bina watched the world come for his handiwork, and even dog tired from marathon programming sessions, wearing the same clothes, unbathed and unshaven, he couldn't help feeling a huge rush.
Every time Netscape released a new version of its Web browser starting in 1994, the number of users on its computer system jolted upward as millions of people clamored to download the software.
But as exciting as it was, it wasn't exactly a new experience by then. Bina had seen it before - at the University of Illinois, where he, Marc Andreessen and colleagues had developed the first widely used graphical Web browser while working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.
The first version of NCSA Mosaic was released 10 years ago this month. Finished versions for Windows, Macintosh and Unix computers arrived that fall.
?It was gaspingly beautiful,? said Vinton Cerf, senior vice president for architecture and technology at MCI, who's known as one of the Internet's fathers for developing the key TCP/ IP protocols on which the network runs. ?We were all very excited about it. It was dramatically different.?
The NCSA didn't give birth to the Web. That had happened in 1990 with Tim Berners-Lee's creation of the system at the European Particle Physics Laboratory so scientists could share information more easily.
But the UI supercomputing center was the Web's midwife, as the center's long-time director Larry Smarr put it. With Mosaic, it dragged the infant Web from the world of a few scientists into the world at large, and the Internet as a whole with it.
Ed Krol, a retired UI computer expert who wrote one of the first how-to books for the Internet, remembers considering whether to include the Web at all in the early editions.
?The CERN physics site was the only site that was up,? he said. ?We didn't think (the Web) was going very far.?
Mosaic changed that. Traffic on the NCSA's computers grew exponentially as an average of 50,000 people a month downloaded it. The browser quickly eclipsed text-centric methods, such as Golpher and Telnet, of tapping Internet resources.
Traffic on the Web increased 1,000 percent within a month of Mosaic's release. The number of Web sites exploded and NCSA's ?What's New? site pointing people to the additions was a popular destination. There were no search engines, no Google.
?The amount of server power that you need is sort of doubling every two weeks,? said Smarr, recalling the situation. ?It was one of the most amazing periods of my life. I don't know that I've ever gone through anything like that before and I don't know if I ever will again.?
Mosaic, unlike the few Web browsers before it, combined pictures, sound, even video into one package. It worked with the Windows and Macintosh computers showing up in homes, not just the expensive Unix machines in university labs. It was free. It was intentionally easy to use.
The original intent was to combine it with Collage, an NCSA tool to let scientists collaborate on line, said Mike Folk, NCSA's technical program manager, whose scientific software development group included the Mosaic team.
?It had to be really easy to use the first time you saw it,? Folk said. ?No training. You didn't have to be a geek. Because our scientists, they're not necessarily geeks, not computer geeks.?
Krol, for one, noted that the basic Web browser interface introduced by Mosaic has become the de facto face of the Internet, and of a lot of other software.
The year after Mosaic's release, Andreessen had graduated, moved to California and hooked up with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jim Clark to start Netscape, the first superstar among Internet companies. A lot of the old Mosaic team, Bina included, joined him.
The UI sued, settled for around $2 million and then sold a license for Mosaic to another company, Spyglass, which in turn licensed it to Microsoft, which used it to create Internet Explorer, which eventually forced Netscape's demise and sale to AOL in 1998.
The UI made $7.5 million total licensing Mosaic, small change compared to the money tossed around in the ?dot-com? frenzy that followed the browser's release. Even a Netscape hobbled by Microsoft sold for $4.2 billion in stock.
But in the context of university-developed software, the UI's take isn't too bad.
Mosaic came along before the UI and most other universities routinely thought about licensing software technology, let alone taking a stake in a start-up company like Netscape, as Clark offered.
Moreover, the propensity still is to ?open source? software from university research labs, in essence give it away to anybody who wants it, because it's an ingrained notion among university researchers that sharing developments is good and because the developments are made, in large part, with public money.
?Most university research, not just software, doesn't make money,? said Dan Reed, the NCSA's current director.
But software in particular, given its rapid change cycle, has limited value, Reed said. The people who create the code and evolve it are the real treasure.
Bina said it's a myth that the Mosaic people who became Netscape might have started the company in Illinois absent the wrangling with the UI. The company was always bound for Silicon Valley, he said.

You can reach Greg Kline at (217) 351-5215 or via e-mail at kline@news-gazette.com.

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