Requiem for Mosaic

by Zeigen

Mosaic died in January, and just like that -- rm * -- an era has ended.

I tend to assume that everyone knows about Mosaic, but just as my youngest brother was born after Star Wars came out (a fact that eternally freaks me out for no good reason), the reality is that given the explosive nature of the Internet's popularity, most people reading this now weren't around then. Knowing about the hottest Web browser of 1994 is on par with knowledge of Oscar-winning movies from the forties: the only people who've seen them are film buffs or were there at the time.

At one time, Mosaic was the killer app for the Internet. Created by programmers for The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Mosaic created the spark which ignited the firestorm of popularity that is the modern Internet. In a few short years, the Internet was transformed.

In 1993, there was an existing culture of university students, government researchers and high-tech employees who were mostly young, libertarian, male, and interested in Star Trek, who enthused about popular ftp sites, saw great things in the future of gopherspace, and for the most part had to know a lot of Unix commands to get around.

These pioneering users started to be outnumbered by the end of 1994 and became a minority in 1995.

Now there is the twenty-first century version of the Internet (the "Information Highway 2.0 beta 1," shipping three years early but still full of bugs), dominated by the World Wide Web almost to the exclusion of other services -- an Internet that may be a fad or may be "utopia" (as MCI declares) but has certainly created a lot of billboards with URLs on them, and has definitely sold corporate America on the importance of a good Web-front. It is no coincidence that the modern Internet also openly hosts spam-churning sites and XXX vendors, and that commercial announcements in Usenet newsgroups just don't produce the same kind of outrage anymore. The old pioneer attitude has died along with Mosaic.

Don't misunderstand me: I'm not talking about any "good old days" -- because the old Internet was profoundly clumsy and hard to use and certainly didn't put money in my pocket the way the modern one does. But I miss it anyway.

Mosaic then [54k jpg]

Mosaic now [67k jpg]

Mosaic then Mosaic now

(Select the thumbnail to see the full-size screen shot image.)

What did Mosaic look like? Well, it looked an awful lot like the first versions of Netscape did -- which isn't really too different from how Netscape looks now: Toolbars and menus and scroll bars surrounding the page itself. Except that back then, pages had no backgrounds (just the default dull gray), no centering, no blinking, no JavaScript or Java or ActiveX or VBScript or Plug-ins, no tables, no frames, no fonts and no text colors: just words and (static) images, and the occasional soundbyte. But that was enough to launch a WWW revolution.

In 1994, an experienced executive named Jim Clark met with one of the NCSA programmers of Mosaic, a young man named Marc Andreessen, and the two of them formed Mosaic Communications(1). With a small team of programmers, they released Netscape, which was faster and snappier than Mosaic and had all of these extensions to HTML(2), extensions that allowed for centering, different font sizes and blinking text. In addition, you could stop a page from loading without crashing it. you could click a link before the page had finished loading, and you could view in-line images in both GIF and JPG formats (Mosaic only supported GIFs at the time). New versions of Netscape came out quickly in early 1995, each adding new extensions to HTML, including background images and tables. The NCSA programmers tried to keep up, but it was clear to the world who was playing catch-up with whom. But at least NCSA was able to force a name change, and Mosaic Communications was reborn as Netscape Communications Corporation.


Head on over to sometime


HTML is the Hypertext Markup Language that is used to create web pages

There were purists who thought that Netscape's extensions to HTML were poorly thought-out, abysmally documented, and violated certain rules established by SGML, the parent language that defines HTML -- and most importantly, that these extensions should have been approved by the existing standards bodies beforehand. These purists tended not to use Netscape as much; they preferred Mosaic or Lynx (a text-only browser developed at the University of Kansas).

One by one, the bulk of Mosaic users switched to Netscape, or by late 1995, Microsoft's Internet Explorer. (Ironically, IE was based on the old Mosaic code, and a little part of Mosaic still lives inside even the latest version of IE.) Mosaic just couldn't keep up: the latest (and last) version, 3.0, was slower than Netscape, couldn't handle HTML 3.2 properly, and was a little (to be kind) quirky. To its credit, Mosaic did have some features that are still emerging in the other browsers, like automatically surfing ahead to cache linked pages. Overall, however, Mosaic didn't win any feature comparisons. And it slowly lost market share.

But Mosaic was the pioneer, and it changed the world. After all, it wasn't enough that the World Wide Web existed -- it had to be fun and easy to use. Mosaic made the Web popular. (A lot of people mistakenly called the Web "Mosaic" in the early days, that's how dominant Mosaic was.) Then Netscape took over and made the Web a phenomenon.

And now Mosaic is dead. Let me quote from NCSA's "What's New with Mosaic" page:

> January, 1997
> The Software Development Group at NCSA has
> worked on NCSA Mosaic for four years
> and we've learned a lot in the process. We
> are honored that we were able to help bring this
> technology to the masses and appreciated all
> the support and feedback we have received in
> return.

Which is really very humble, I think, considering.

> The time has come for us to concentrate on
> other areas of interest and active development
> of Mosaic is complete.

That's nice, that wording; very subtle. When that day finally comes for me, I want to take a cue from Mosaic and have my obituary read:

                                    _____                       __
                                   |     |            *        /  \
   *                 *             |     |      *             |    |     *
                                ___|     |___                  \__/
                               |     In      |
 *                *            |  Memoriam   |                      *
                               |___       ___|
        *                          |     |
                                   |     |           *
                                   |     |                           *
~~~~@~~~~~~~~~~~~~~@~~~~~/                         \~~~~~~~~@~~@~~~~~~~~~~~~
@~~~~~~~~~@~~~~@~~~~~@~~/    E. Stephen Mack IV     \~~~~@~~~~~~~~~~~~~@~~~~
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~@~~~~~~~~/         1967 - 2312         \~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~@~
~~@~~~~~@~~~~~~~~~~~~~/      Author and pioneer       \~~~~~~~~~~@~~~~~~~~~~
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~@~~~~/                                 \~~~@~~~~~~~~~~~@~~~~
~~~@~~~~~~~@~~~~~~~~/   Active development of Zeigen    \~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~@~~~/             is complete             \~~~~~~~~~~~~~~@~~~

Copyright © 1997
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