Making it easy

MicroTimes bills itself as “Northern California’s Computer Magazine” despite running to 340 pages of almost tabloid sized newsprint packed with advertisements for cheap computer hardware targeted at the discerning Silicon Valley community. The January 2, 1995 edition of MicroTimes filled its colour front page with a photograph of Marc Andreessen, by way of announcing his selection as their “Man of the Year” for 1994. MicroTimes reporter Michael Robin introduced his extended interview with Andreessen by briefly summarising a very rapid rise from obscurity, noting that in early 1993:

Marc Andreessen was an undergraduate student in Computer Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, working at NCSA. He wanted to figure out a way to make information on the Net “interesting and compelling for people to explore.” The solution, explains Andreessen was to “build a program that pulled together all the resources of this global network,” the Internet. To accomplish this he assembled a team of six fellow programmers at NCSA, and in the tradition of the Internet, they proceeded to build NCSA Mosaic, …

MicroTimes:202

It took only three months to produce the first version of Mosaic which was targeted at Unix workstations. NCSA were happy for Andreessen to make the Mosaic software freely available for downloading over the network, with Macintosh and Microsoft Windows versions following later in the year. After graduating, Andreessen left NCSA and southern Illinois for northern California.

He began working at Palo Alto-based Enterprise Integration Technologies (EIT), the company that manages CommerceNet. Andreessen’s career took another turn when he met Jim Clark, founder and former chairman of Silicon Graphics. Their initial meeting led to the formation of (the company which was to become Netscape Communications) in April 1994. By fall they had released a new (beta) Internet browser designed for home users, …

MicroTimes:203

In the interview, Andreessen revealed that Mosaic was “definitely a research prototype” which “incorporated, borrowed, or stole as much stuff from as many people as we could” and that this had enabled he and Eric Bina to write it in three months. With the research community in mind, they assumed such things as unlimited bandwidth. Asked about Mosaic’s rapid uptake, Andreessen responded:

It was fun and easy to use. People could pull it down (from the Net), install it, and boom, it worked.

The other part was, and this gets back to the server side, it was straightforward for people to do things specific to what they were doing. It was easy to build applications on top of it. People would be able to pick up the server software and be able to build an application on the back end that had something to do with their business, their activities, or their research. They could then make that service available to the entire network, and since everyone had the front end and everyone could access it. It became a very powerful way to build applications over the network.

MicroTimes:203

This statement exemplifies a couple of the key causes that our research has found for the success of the Web. It particularly shows the standardisation process at work. The intentional standards that the Web defines for the back end (see previous section) and the market driven adoption of Mosaic which made it, temporarily, a de facto standard provided a platform on which further developments could be based. It also underlines Mosaic’s role in advancing usability, firstly through its very nature as a graphical front end, and secondly through being easy to obtain and install. Nowadays the whole task of downloading and installing the latest version of Netscape is accomplished by one click on a button on the Web page for your choice of front end computer.

From Xerox PARC, through Apple’s Macintosh to Microsoft’s reluctant endorsement of Windows, a graphical user interface has become synonymous with ease of use by the uninitiated. The Net had long been a cryptically driven resource for the thoroughly initiated, but Mosaic rapidly changed that, at least for those on University and similar networks who shared high speed communication links to the Internet. Taking what he had learnt from the research prototype that Mosaic was when he worked on it and the mistakes that “were pointed out to us in great volume over the course of ‘93, by lots of people” (MicroTimes: 204), Andreessen designed Netscape to give acceptable performance to a home user connected from a Macintosh or Windows PC at 14.4Kb. His new company is still giving away the Netscape client over the Net as well as selling a ‘supported’ version in a box like more traditional software, but it is concentrating even more effort on the development of server technology, especially security features for which it is able to charge a significant premium. The Web community has recently produced a lot of argument between advocates of Netscape’s ‘Secure Sockets Layer’ and EIT’s ‘Secure HTML’, two quite different approaches to the question of security standards for the Web.

With the Web’s future secure, if not yet all its messages, our understanding of the complex combination of factors behind its success is well served by a look back at the fate of some other projects which also shared Nelson’s vision of an open-ended hypertext.