Web browser history part 1: The evolution of the web browser

Original WorldWideWeb logo
Original WorldWideWeb logo, designed in 1990 by Robert Cailliau

If there’s any 20th century invention that changed the world in a revolutionary way, it is the World Wide Web. What started as a small project to easily host internal information over the internet has since transformed into an integral part of our modern society. The information and content we have today would not be accessible without the creation of web browsers. Before web browsers, internet users did not have much to rely on aside from e-mails and newsgroups. This has since changed. From simplistic software in its early days, to multi-functioning products today, browsers have come a long way.

The proposal

While working for CERN in 1990, Tim Berners-Lee had an idea — a project that allowed information at CERN to be more easily accessible to employees via servers. Having written up a proposal for his project, it ran under two possible names: The Mine of Information and The Information Mesh. Neither of these names stuck around as Berners-Lee eventually settled on the name WorldWideWeb.

In the introduction of his proposal, Berners-Lee said “there is a potential large benefit from the integration of a variety of systems in a way which allows a user to follow links pointing from one piece of information to another one. This forming of a web of information nodes rather than a hierarchical tree or an ordered list is the basic concept behind HyperText.”

After being used to a system of finding information that didn’t allow for immediate results, WorldWideWeb was to serve as a way to retrieve any information immediately via computer servers. No more searching through long lists on physical sheets of paper that were hard to find in the first place. Information would be placed online and properly organized to give employees everything they needed without spending time searching for answers.

The proposal went on to explain some of the software’s features including keyword search functions, and graphic-displaying capabilities in the future. All nodes (text) and links could be accessed from different machines, even if not on the same server. The best part? WorldWideWeb was free for anybody to access.

WorldWideWeb was also created with attainability kept in mind. In the proposal’s list of “non-objectives”, the WorldWideWeb and its resources were not to “aim to use sophisticated network authorisation systems,”. Berners-Lee elaborated on this by saying “data will be either readable by the world (literally), or will be readable only on one file system…All network traffic will be public.”

List of Objectives and non-Objectives from Tim Berners-Lee's proposal for the WorldWideWeb
List of Objectives and non-Objectives from Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for the WorldWideWeb

Two phases of the program’s development were planned in the proposal. “Phase 1” would establish the foundation of how WorldWideWeb would work, with emphasis on simplicity and accessibility. “Phase 2” would allow non-developers to use the software and allow their own creations to be published on the service.

Phase 1 and Phase 2 explained in WWW proposal.
Phase 1 and Phase 2 explained in WWW proposal.

The first successful build of WorldWideWeb was released December 20 1990. It was basic in its functionality. It displayed text and small graphics, allowed newsgroup browsing, and had a built in WYSIWYG editor. WorldWideWeb was later renamed Nexus in order to avoid confusion between the software and the World Wide Web itself.

A 1993 screenshot of WorldWideWeb
A 1993 screenshot of WorldWideWeb (source: Tim Berners-Lee: WorldWideWeb)

WorldWideWeb and other early browsers

With the successful release of WorldWideWeb/Nexus, the next step was finding ways to get the public on the Web. One limitation of WorldWideWeb was that it only worked on NeXT computers, the same operating system it was developed on. In order to create a larger userbase, the Line Mode Browser was coded by Nicola Pellow and released in 1991. Line Mode Browser was strictly text-based. It was supported on most machines due to its simplistic design. It’s universal availability made it popular amongst users.

Screenshot of the simplistic Line Mode Browser (Photo from CERN)

Once 1992 came along, development of more web browsers began. Through the efforts of four Finnish students Kim Nyberg, Teemu Rantanen, Kati Suominen and Kari Sydänmaanlakka, the Erwise browser was developed for Unix systems. Impressed with their work, Tim Berners-Lee travelled to Finland to encourage further development of the browser after the students had graduated. Unfortunately, lack of interest, funding, and English documentation ultimately led to its quick demise.

Screenshot of Erwise
Screenshot of the short-lived Erwise browser (Photo from OSNews)

Months after the Erwise project ended, the Lynx browser was released. Much like Line Mode Browser, Lynx was minimalistic and strictly text-based. Lynx is also the oldest web browser that still sees frequent use today. It is most often used for testing websites.

Screenshot of Google being viewed on Lynx
Screenshot of Google being viewed on Lynx browser. (Photo from Pingdom)

In the same year, the MacWWW browser was invented by Robert Cailliau and Nicola Pellow for Apple systems, making it the first non-Unix browser. The browser, like the other few at the time, followed a simple design with basic functions.

Screenshot of MacWWW
Screenshot of MacWWW. (Photo from TidBits)

The development of graphical browsers

Increased interest in accessing the Web meant further development. In 1992,The ViolaWWW browser was created. ViolaWWW was superior in ability to other browsers at the time. Its extended functionality included features such as embedded scriptable objects, stylesheets and tables. The software was praised at CERN and began to set the standard for future browser development.

Screenshow of ViolaWWW
Screenshot of ViolaWWW (Photo from ViolaWWW)

Not long after the then-impressive ViolaWWW, the Arena browser was released in 1993. The browser was able to do more than ViolaWWW. Arena allowed for creators to input features such as background images, tables, textflow around images, and inline mathematical expressions. Graphically, the browser was able to support .png, .jpg, and .gif files. Arena also allowed users to bookmark pages. The browser took advantage of developments that came with HTML 3.0-3.2 and CSS. Due to its many abilities, Arena served as the “testbed browser” for the W3C from 1994 to 1996.

Screenshot of a math field in Arena
Math in Arena (Photo from Dave Raggett)

Another graphical browser, Cello, was released around the same time. Cello did not work as well as Arena, but it brought the Web to Windows 3.1 users. Cello was the first Web browser that worked on Windows machines.

Cello running on Windows 3.1
Cello running on Windows 3.1 (Photo from FavBrowser)

Mosaic wows the Web

With more web browsers appearing in the early-90’s, there was one that took everything to the next level: Mosaic.

Screenshot of Mosaic
Screenshot of Mosaic displaying the Yahoo! homepage (Photo from Browser Museum)

Mosaic was developed by NCSA and released in 1993. Mosaic surpassed every other web browser released during that time in performance and features. The browser’s support of multiple protocols, inline graphics instead of separate window display, and universal availability made it popular with users at the time. Due to its abilities and user-friendliness, the browser is credited with helping popularize and bring the World Wide Web to the average person. At the time of Mosaic’s release, a sudden growth in web use occurred. 

Aside from providing better browsing features, Mosaic also contributed to web growth with its “What’s New” page. The page included at least one new link each day to different websites. When the web was still incredibly small (less than 100 websites), the page served as a way for users to discover pre-existing and new web pages that might have otherwise been hidden without any additional promotion.

Screenshot of What's New
Screenshot of Mosaic’s “What’s New” page (Photo from Computer History Museum)

Though the browser’s development did not go beyond 1997, it set the foundation for forthcoming browsers Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator.

The modern browser

Mosaic brought interactive browsing to the World Wide Web, which is an important part of the modern web. Successors Internet Explorer and Netscape made use of interactive options to create a better user experience, which led to their popularity in the mid-90’s and beyond.

Since the days of Internet Explorer and Netscape, we’ve seen more popular browsers come and go, such as Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera, and Safari. All taking from Mosaic, these browsers have built on Mosaic’s foundations to give us modern features such as integrated software support, tabbed browsing, heightened security features, built-in pop up blockers, and more. Mobile web browsing has also found its place with the rising popularity of cell phones and tablets.

The function of web browsers likely isn’t changing anytime soon. What’s next to come visually and in terms of features can only be decided based on trends of how the World Wide Web is used. In the era of Semantic Web where user activity is heavily studied, the influence of everyday users can only bring more improvements to how we browse the Web for years to come.

See also: Web browser history part 2: The browser wars

Do you have any memories of using early web browsers? Share your story in the comments.

Have a suggestion for a future post? Have a net memory of your own that you’d like to share? Send an e-mail to thenetstorian@gmail.com.

Author: The Netstorian

Internet culture enthusiast and creator of The Netstorian.

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