Part 3 in an ongoing series about web history
In 1998, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Microsoft, alleging monopolistic corporate maneuvering by the company in an attempt to illegally diminish its competition. At the center of the case was Internet Explorer, a browser that Microsoft had released for free and bundled directly into their operating system, leaving very little room or incentive for competition. The trial lasted years, and its ultimate conclusion that Microsoft had violated antitrust laws and should be subject to a breakup would have been absolutely tectonic if not for the fact that the decisions was reversed less than a year later through an appeal. If you’re looking for a single event that had lasting consequences on the web, it’s not a bad place to start. But that’s not what we are here to talk about (at least, not yet).
During the court proceedings, heaped on mountains of sworn testimony and archived correspondence, a memo surfaced from May of 1995. It was written by Bill Gates himself, subject line The Internet Tidal Wave, and was sent to every Microsoft executive. The 5,000 word manifesto highlighted the acute importance of the web for the future of the tech world, and the failure by Microsoft to make themselves a part of it. It was a strange position for Gates to take, seeing as just a a year earlier, he had directed his team to steer clear of the Internet. In his book released that same year, The Road Ahead, he espoused the weakness of the Internet as untested, uncharted, and in most cases, unusable. This memo, only a year later, was a complete reversal. It could not be more clear. Microsoft needed to embrace the Internet, or face being replaced by it.
Gates spent a good portion of the document dealing with the web, and though his first assessment of the Internet could not have been farther off, the memo comes off as oddly prescient,
The HTTP protocols that define HTML Web browsing are extremely simple and have allowed servers to handle incredible traffic reasonably well. All of the predictions about hypertext – made decades ago by pioneers like Ted Nelson – are coming true on the Web. Although other protocols on the Internet will continue to be used (FTP, Gopher, IRC, Telnet, SMTP, NNTP). HTML with extensions will be the standard that defines how information will be presented
In particular, he feared that Netscape would soon offer an operating system that existed entirely on the web. The only solution, he concluded was to “match and beat their offerings.” A few months after that, Microsoft released their first browser, Internet Explorer which, of course, would eventually lead to the previously mentioned trial proceedings.
At the end of the 1995, the online services provider Prodigy, which had made a killing offering a self-contained experience on a closed network, released their own web browser as well, opening their doors to the wider world of the Internet for the first time since it originally set up shop.
In early 1996, the ink dried on a lucrative deal between America’s largest single online services provider, AOL, and Netscape. As part of the deal, Netscape bundled a version of their browser directly into AOL’s platform. Netscape followed that up with a similar deal with CompuServe. Practically overnight, Netscape had accumulated nearly 10 million new users before the first half of 1996 was over.
1995 was the web’s single most important inflection point (the year, incidentally, acted in the same way across every major industry, a fact that becomes most apparent by simply looking at the numbers. At the end of 1994, there were around 2,500 web servers. 12 months later, there were almost 75,000. By the end of 1995, over 700 new servers were being added to the web every single day. The web got a mention in The New York Times. The OJ trial was widely reported on, and speculated about, on the web. The White House even got a website.
So what happened? What made Microsoft, the most dominant force in the technological landscape, suddenly scared of a threat they had barely registered just a year earlier. What made online service providers, major media publications, large government organizations and everyday people sit up, take notice, and open up their web browsers? 1995 is the story of the many people that believed in the web and fought for its future. It was the year it moved outside the huddled spaces of universities and research labs and into the imaginations of everyday people who imbued it with purpose and set it loose on to the world.
As is often the case, the story of 1995 doesn’t start in 1995. It starts a few years earlier, when the seeds of the consumer web first took root. Which is, as you might imagine, where we will begin as well.
Two Schools of Thought
The first time Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreessen met was at the WWW Wizards Conference, a gathering of a couple dozen web pioneers at the O’Reilly offices in Cambridge, in the summer of 1993. Berners-Lee, you may remember, assembled the protocols that ultimately made up the World Wide Web just a few years earlier. Andreessen was still at NCSA working on the Mosaic browser, a popular choice among the nascent web community and, notably, the first to feature inline images. By the following year, he would co-found Netscape, help launch Netscape Navigator, and see the web soar to new heights. For now, however, he was little more than an avid web enthusiast and programmer. The two would meet several more times over the years as they weaved themselves into the fabric of the web in very different ways.
Over the course of two days the group at the conference debated the diverging futures of the web, breaking out into small working groups from time to time to hammer out the details. If you asked them at the time, I doubt anyone in attendance – a mix of browser makers, publishers, and high-profile “webmasters” – would think to mark the moment as particularly historic. Nothing all that concrete came out of it. It did, however, make one thing perfectly clear. There were two very different approaches to building the web.
Berners-Lee was there to pitch an idea that would eventually become known as the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, founded later in 1993. The W3C’s primary goal was to guide the progress of the web through standards for the foundational technologies of the web, namely HTML, HTTP, and later, CSS. Its membership is made up of browser makers, web standards experts, developers, and representatives from large tech corporations. Since the very beginning, the W3C has acted slowly and deliberately. Their standards are long, written-up recommendations made to browsers, often after years of careful research and testing. This was always Berners-Lee’s vision for the web. A melding of the minds that, over time, made careful progress towards a more advanced future (in recent years, he’s made a call for a return to this ideological baseline, and not entirely without good reason).
Andreessen was among the youngest in the room and a true believer in what was known as the free software movement, that was responsible for the Linux operating system just a few years earlier. He saw the web very, very differently. Andreessen and his peers at NCSA had made Mosaic the most advanced browser on the market by pushing out experimental and iterative code whenever they could. In less than a year, they were giving designers layout options, tweaking server tools, and polishing the actual experience of using the web. Many recall their first time time using Mosaic as a transformative experience, due, in large part, to their ability to push something new to the codebase every single day. There were few other guiding principles other than if it looks cool, ship it. Code was malleable, and ultimately disposable, so why not push the web forward as quickly as you could? In less than a year, the team at NCSA had advanced the web further than many thought possible, and released the first consumer ready browser to the market.
By the time Netscape released its own browser in 1994, Andreessen and his team would have this down to a science. Jim Clark, the other founder of Netscape, called it “Netscape Time,” codifying the ethos in a book and accompanying speaking tour at the crest of his browser’s massive success. Years later, Facebook would shorten the philosophy to a single slogan: Move fast and break things. I often think of the way Joel Spolsky describes Jamie Zawinski, one of the founding engineers at Netscape:
Jamie Zawinski is what I would call a duct-tape programmer. And I say that with a great deal of respect. He is the kind of programmer who is hard at work building the future, and making useful things so that people can do stuff. He is the guy you want on your team building go-carts, because he has two favorite tools: duct tape and WD-40. And he will wield them elegantly even as your go-cart is careening down the hill at a mile a minute. This will happen while other programmers are still at the starting line arguing over whether to use titanium or some kind of space-age composite material that Boeing is using in the 787 Dreamliner.
When you are done, you might have a messy go-cart, but it’ll sure as hell fly.
It’s this spectrum of ideology, the two sides of Berners-Lee and Andreessen, that has governed the web’s progress and development from the very beginning. The platform has bounced between the two ever since it began. Some of the web’s biggest missteps have been a result of leaning too far in one direction or the other. We’re seeing that play out in real time today.
It’s very first step, it’s origin, began with Berners-Lee and under his careful guidance. The explosive growth of 1995 is largely due to a major bounce in the other direction, a time when “Netscape Time” became the official canon of web development. The former pace wouldn’t reassert itself until the early 2000’s, after the fatigue of the browser wars led to the creation of the web standards movement. But in 1995, development across the web moved quickly, in a near-endless stream of experimentation, predicated largely on the success of Netscape and its tech ilk. The progress was extraordinary, and unprecedented. The web went from a little known Internet technology to a household name in a single year, and it’s unlikely this could have happened without developers pushing the platform to its limits at every turn. Browser makers, designers, entrepreneurs, and system administrators all tweaked the web to a new level of success.
In other words, 1995 was messy as hell. But it sure as hell did fly.
Learning to Design
The WWW Wizards Conference was organized by O’Reilly Media employee Dale Dougherty. Years later, at the dawn of a new age of the web from the ashes of the dot-com bubble burst, Dougherty was the one that coined the phrase Web 2.0. In 1993, he was simply a web fan. At time, and short of its founder, perhaps its biggest. He understood the value proposition, and potential commercial value, of the web far before anyone could see the forest for the trees. He was willing to make a huge bet on the web and its future.
Just before the conference, Dougherty had been tasked with exploring the possibilities of the web for O’Reilly. His focus was on spreading the word, teaching people what the web was and how to use it even as they were rapidly discovering it. His first move was to hire one of the web’s earliest pioneers, programmer Pei-Yuan Wei. Wei was responsible for ViolaWWW which, as some of you may remember, was the first browser created outside of CERN. Dougherty’s idea was to take O’Reilly’s bestselling book The Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog, a dense exploration of the technologies that underpinned the Information Age that was already becoming a handbook of the geek generation, and put it on the web. Wei was going to help him do that. In a few months, he had a version of it running inside of Viola.
Dougherty took his proof of concept and used it to get buy-in to spin off a small team inside of O’Reilly. The team was tasked with making the world’s first commercially viable website. In the summer of 1993, Dougherty and his team did just that when they launched the first version of Global Network Navigator, GNN.com.
GNN’s website was a starting point for web newbies. It packaged news and business listings with a meticioulslcy organized directory of unique and interesting links from around the web. That section of the site was known as The Online Whole Internet Catalog (derived from the aforementioned Internet User’s Guide title), and each day it was updated with fresh new hyperlinks as websites blinked into existence. Over the years, GNN would be responsible for a number of web firsts. The first commercial website. The first website with sponsored ads. The first mainstream web portal. The team at GNN was writing the rules even as they were running at a breakneck speed.
Dougherty recruited book designer Jennifer Robbins to help with the site’s overall aesthetic. When Robbins came on board, the web had little in the way of actual design, a sea of white backgrounds and plain black text. Berners-Lee didn’t plan much for the web to be designed. He was, after all, a scientist. Robbins immediately set about shaking up the status quo. She worked alongside the developers on the project to understand the limitations and promise of HTML in the browser. Then she experimented a bit. She added a logo, a hot air balloon that would soon be iconic. She created bold graphics to run before blocks of text. She organized simple table of contents and layouts. She was, in essence, paving the cowpaths. The web was still just full of possibility and promise. It would be up to the first web designers and developers, like Robbins, to deliver on it.
Netscape, for their part, were working on their end of the bargain by packing their browser full of new functionality and features. The web platform shifted even as more and more sites were coming on line, and the pace of browser development was moving at an exceptional rate thanks to the push code first, ask questions later attitude at Netscape. They even began pushing non-standard HTML tags like the
layertags, which gave developers new tools for layout and design years before CSS made its way into the platform. That would have some pretty important repercussions later on. For now, they just kept on moving.
By the time 1995 rolled around, Netscape had helped to transform the web into a product ready for the mainstream. Once Microsoft entered the browser arena, they only pushed harder. The Netscape Navigator 2.0 release would be their most advanced browser yet, but they needed something more. So they recruited former Silicon Graphics employee Brandon Eich to create a new programming language designed forthe web for use on the web. In just 10 days, Eich had a working prototype.
This flurry of activity in 1995 also, incidentally, included a new feature no one thought much about that allowed data to be streamed from the server to the browser. It could, in theory, be used to create animations. A day after the feature was released, two sites would feature animations of this type. The first was the Netscape homepage. The other was a bouncing blue dot.
Craig Kanarick was responsible for that particular blue dot. He had been up late the night before trying to get it to bounce just right. He even patched the code of the browser itself to fix a bug that had stopped. When he launched his site on the day of the feature’s release he called it, appropriately enough, The Blue Dot. With a few weeks of experimentation, The Blue Dot would evolve from a simple animation to a digital art gallery plastered with the work of Kanarick’s friends and collaborators. The site featured a collage of poetry, photography, and illustrations weaved together with a design that was rudimentary, but clearly designed with some sort of purpose, vibrant backgrounds and bold text that put its collection of art on display.
The site became the calling card of Kanarick and his partner, Jeff Dachs. The two would go on to launch the web agency Razorfish, a larger continent of techies in New York, which was sometimes referred to as Silicon Alley, who were taking their chances on the web platform rather than through traditional design career paths.
That experimental and fast-paced kind of design became the hallmark of 1995 websites. It drove the medium forward by throwing out the rule book of design on a platform that allowed for very little freedom without some truly creative thinking.
Among Silicon Alley’s single most important driving forced was Jamie Levy, by all accounts the rock star of the early web. She hosted underground parties for the cyber elite in her East Village loft, and well before the web was a blip on anyone’s radar, experimented with digital art on floppy disks for magazines and Billy Idol. She was exactly the kind of the designer the web needed. Someone who understood the limitations of the digital medium, but wasn’t scared to try a bunch of cool stuff anyway.
When Levy was recruited to build the web’s first true online magazine, she hired Marisa Bowe as the site’s editor and Yoshi Sodeoka as its art director. By June of 1995, they launched WORD, a site that completely redefined the nascent web which, as you may recall, was just a year ago being used to distribute research papers among academics and was not being masterfully utilized by Levy and her team to create a website that offered real content for real people with the driving aesthetic of a punk rock zine.
Bowe brought on an impressive roster of counterculture writers which collided spectacularly with Levy’s vivid and subversive designs and Sodeoka’s energetic graphics. There were no books on web design, no best practices. The site was limited only by its creators imagination. No two pages were alike. They created quizzes and games and once even a chatbot, carefully crafted layouts for each new article, all of which supported writing that offered an alternative take to the latest cultural milieu. Brilliantly executed and meticulously managed, WORD lit a spark and inspired the tinkerers of the world to unite on the web.
Other members of the Silicon Alley scene included Stephanie Syman and Steven Johnson of Feed Magazine (a more regularly updated, and often ironically tinged, riff on the digital magazine), Nicholas Butterworth of SonicNet (a gathering place for music lovers), Rufus Griscom and Genevieve Field of Nerve.com (one of the earliest dating websites), and Heather Macdonald and Esther Drill of gURL.com, who were still in college at the time. Of course, this wasn’t just on the East Coast. They were part of a much larger movement that gathered steam in 1995 and believed deeply in the open promise of the web to redefine our everyday experiences and buck the mainstream.
When a couple of employees at Hotwired wanted to start their own snarky digital magazine, they siphoned off some server space from their employers and for months went under the radar while getting Suck.com off the ground. Addicted to Noise, the web’s first rock magazine, began when its own founder was fed up with the bland, repetitive articles he was editing at Rolling Stone. An avid film fan in Britain found that the web was a perfect space to host his exhaustive list of movie etymology and moved his Internet Movie Database in early 1993. A VJ at MTV started his own unofficial site for the network, which was little more than a collection of inside jokes and clips. People found a home themselves on the web. And crucially, there was no one to stop them from making a website of their own.
Everyone Has a Website
It’s not necessarily easy to create a website. It requires, at the bare minimum, a knowledge of the HTML markup language, and the ability to host these HTML files in such a way that they can be read by web browsers. It takes a bit of work. But anyone with the tools and some time can do it. In 1995, the web was flooded with new websites. Remember, there were hundreds going up every day. Some of these were large commercial endeavors. Others were the creative brainchildren of wildly unique creators like Jamie Levy. Most of them were built by ordinary people. They were basic and loosely connected and sometimes about TV shows or movies or nothing at all. Maybe even you built one of these.
The web wasn’t under lock and key. No one dictated what populated it (though it may feel like that given the homogeneous and largely commercial experience of browsing the modern web). If you had an idea for a website, you tossed it up on a server and sure, maybe nobody would see it, but at least it was there and it was yours. There were all sorts of websites. Big ones, small ones, fan pages dedicated to B and C-List celebrities, personal diaries and long, rambling thesis’ about everything. Purple.com was a website that was just a blank, purple page. That’s all there was too it and it was wildly popular. Sites like these were a large percentage of actual websites, the long tail of the web. We don’t think about it much, but even with the billions of Facebook profiles, they still kind of are.
There were lots of weird little experiments that gave rise to these websites too. Geocities popped up at the end of 1994, originally under the moniker Beverley Hills Internet. It was one of a number of other sites that came for it, like Myspace and Neopets, that empowered users to use code to create something on the web without having to know too much about how it all worked. Geocities hooked users in with a simple gimmick. The site was divided into several different virtual “neighborhoods,” named for actual, IRL neighborhoods, like Beverley Hills, or more abstract concepts like the science fiction themed Area51. As a user, you could set up your own site in any of these neighborhoods. You didn’t have to stick to the theme of the neighborhood, but it was a pretty neat entry point.
The level of creativity and versatility on display on your average Geocities site is hard to understate. Most were a cross between amateur experiments and love letters to this or that piece of pop culture. They were plastered with recipes, vacation photos, esoteric images, and tidbits of slash fiction. Getting up and going on Geocities required a bit of HTML, but once you played around a bit, it was easy enough to build just about whatever you wanted.
Look at how developer Benj Edwards recalls building his own site in 1995:
At that time, Netscape 1.0 did not support background images (all pages had a grey background), did not display JPEG images at all, or allow HTML-selectable font faces–among other limitations. But we liked it anyway.
It did, however, support displaying GIF files inline with text. So to make a snazzy logo for my new website, I fired up Microsoft Paintbrush and sketched out a geometrical wonder… After that, it was time to add the image tag to my HTML file, then upload it to my web space and check it out online for the first time.
Little by little, these small clusters of writers and artists and web folk began to spring up. Webgrrls was founded in 1995 too, and it gave women interested in the web a platform and a community to get started. It was the springboard for more than a few careers. Newgrounds, launched that summer, offered up an entirely different scene of aspiring animators and game designers who used the web to share their work without the need for a publisher or a means of distribution. The work was occasionally rough around the edges, but buried within were some true gems.
What’s a bit hard to see these days is how uncertain the future of the web was. No one really knew what we were going to do with this massive global network of digital identities held together with little more than spit and glue. Some were figuring it out on the ground, building sites in their spare time to figure out how it all worked. Others were trying to take it to take that to the next level.
Think back to the first website you ever saw. We all had very different entry points into the World Wide Web, but I’m guessing if you’re reading this newsletter, it was a transformative experience for you. If you were cool (or, let’s face it, geeky) enough to be surfing the web in 1995, that site might have been Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.
That particular’s website’s backstory starts in early 1994, when electrical engineering majors Jerry Yang and David Filo felt compelled to procrastinate on their latest research project on circuit designs. As students do. Instead of all that boring researching, they dived down a rabbit hole of hyperlinks on the World Wide Web and got themselves hooked, almost instantly. Pretty soon though, they lost their way and found it hard to find new sites without some serious digging through the interwebs. It was easy enough to jump from one site to the next, but there weren’t any collected lists that were particularly canonical or exhaustive. The two turned their attention to learning about the web, and in a few weeks they had assembled their very own website, one that was a simple list of links to other websites.
The site, Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web (named eponymously), was a massive collection of links organized into sometimes bizarre and eclectic categories. These categories made little sense outside of Jerry and David’s brains, but they clicked almost immediately with the offbeat attitude of early web adopters that managed to find the site. It became a point of discovery for many web users, a jumping off point into the endless abyss of the web, providing clarity where once there was only darkness. By January of 1995, they moved the site to the domain Yahoo.com, got featured inside of the Netscape browser, and became a portal to the web for millions of users.
Of course, that story’s not true, not all of it at least. It’s not fundamentally incorrect or disingenuous, but it leaves out some pretty important details. Here’s the truth. The first online directory of sites was actually the first website Berners-Lee ever created. It was hosted on CERN servers, and maintained and updated daily by Berners-Lee himself. It’s an idea that was later extended by Dougherty and his team at GNN. By the time Yang and Filo started tinkering around with a web directory of their own, GNN had been in business for over a year, had inked deals with the Netscape browser and lucrative ad partners, and had expanded their team inside of O’Reilly. Yahoo was a reimagining of the GNN concept, in methodology if not in all out practice. Yahoo was a bit more homegrown, maybe even more down to earth, with a rawer aesthetic than the more refined look GNN had settled on after years of experimentation. But it was fundamentally similar.
That’s not how they were sold though. Yang and Filo were stalwarts of a particular brand of Silicon Valley tech-genius lore. It’s not a mythology they invented, nor were they particularly responsible for spreading it. They did, however, embody that mythology as it manifested on the web. In a 1995 profile of the company for Rolling Stone, Amy Virshup articulates the way in which the story of Yahoo echoed that of virtually every other web startup.
Theirs is a fable becoming almost common in Silicon Valley in these days of overheated expectations for the Internet. A couple of guys with pocket protectors and a glint in their eyes invent some garage software, round up some venture-capital financing and go on not only to make millions but also to change the outlines of the world, at least technologically speaking.
Yahoo, which took off just before 1995 got started, laid down a foundation for other tech startups with the same kind of hyped expectations to burst on the scene. Each site that sprung up did so from its own mythic roots. It was that very year that Pierre Omidyar launched a makeshift auction site to help his girlfriend sell Pez Dispensers online and called it Ebay, a story that is somewhat grounded in truth. It was the year that, alone in his garage, Jeff Bezos made selling books online an overnight success, a story that leaves out the years of work and fortuitous connections that Bezos had developed.
If 1995 was a year of creative expression that begot sites like WORD and The Blue Dot, it was also the year the web found commercial viability. Forward thinking investors began to see the potential of the web, with its global reach and low startup costs, as a place to begin appealing to a mainstream audience. A lot of businesses that got started then still exist today. And 1995 was also the year of sites like Altavista and Lycos, which used automation to crawl and index sites on the Internet, highlighting the fact that the web was beginning to spread far beyond the isolated echo chambers of its origins.
The Web, Codified
Right as 1996 began, Jennifer Robbins published her first book, collecting the things she had learned working on GNN into a step by step guide called Designing for the Web. That same month, Lynda Weinman published her own web design book, Designing Web Graphics alongside her online learning resource and seminar series Lynda.com. Together, they created the perfect endocarp to a turbulent and transformative year, the first official handbooks for the digitally curious web aficionado.
If you were fortunate enough to be working on the web in 1995, it may have felt far more insignificant at the time. Most people were just playing around the web because they thought it was cool, and when they got online they found an entire community just like them. People began to craft their online identities, and share links, words, and experiences with one another. The cumulative effective, though, was a web that began to spread into the hands of everyone. One by one, as users blinked online for the first time, the web gained a stronger foothold, a starting point that would soon be used to catapult the web into a large-scale commercial endeavor. For now though, it was a fun place to be with very little rules and near infinite possibilities. It was a home for many that had previously felt lost, and that is a powerful thing.