16 December 2011

Palaeo-browsers of the primitive web

The Viola Browser. Love the color scheme
Ars Technica profiles the forgotten web browsers of the early 1990s:
When Tim Berners-Lee arrived at CERN, Geneva's celebrated European Particle Physics Laboratory in 1980, the enterprise had hired him to upgrade the control systems for several of the lab's particle accelerators. But almost immediately, the inventor of the modern webpage noticed a problem: thousands of people were floating in and out of the famous research institute, many of them temporary hires.
"The big challenge for contract programmers was to try to understand the systems, both human and computer, that ran this fantastic playground," Berners-Lee later wrote. "Much of the crucial information existed only in people's heads." 
So in his spare time, he wrote up some software to address this shortfall: a little program he named Enquire. It allowed users to create "nodes"—information-packed index card-style pages that linked to other pages. Unfortunately, the PASCAL application ran on CERN's proprietary operating system. "The few people who saw it thought it was a nice idea, but no one used it. Eventually, the disk was lost, and with it, the original Enquire."
Samba, the first Mac browser. 'Disque dur'! le Français d'internet est fantastique
Some years later Berners-Lee returned to CERN. This time he relaunched his "World Wide Web" project in a way that would more likely secure its success. On August 6, 1991, he published an explanation of WWW on the alt.hypertext usegroup. He also released a code library, libWWW, which he wrote with his assistant Jean-François Groff. The library allowed participants to create their own Web browsers.
"Their efforts—over half a dozen browsers within 18 months—saved the poorly funded Web project and kicked off the Web development community," notes a commemoration of this project by the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
This is another step toward mapping the early history of the digital age. Also  a nice example of how the search for a unique inventor or moment of origin for historical movements is a distraction. These palaeo-browsers are an important part of the heritage of the digital age, and at the same time irrelevant. They were part of the evolutionary web that led to Netscape, which eclipsed them all. Here's Netscape's daddy, the original Mosaic browser. I remember using this on some machines when I first got to college in 1994.

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