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Unraveling the web's story

Mosaic in the rear view

The Mosaic browser was released thirty years ago. It’s credited with a lot of firsts. When I wrote about Mosaic several years ago, I focused on how it was the first browser to add the img tag, which gave it a burst of personality and popularity. It was also the first browser to really nail cross-platform compatibility, the first browser to be widely licensed, and the first to implement a laundry list of features that feel commonplace today.

Most starkly, thirty years on, Mosaic is often held up as the first browser to hit the mainstream. It got a mentioned in the national press and installed on the computers of everyday consumers. The pace of development that enabled these firsts was essential to its growth, and it poured accelerant on an already rapidly growing world wide web. But a side effect was that the Mosaic was really, really buggy.

This is how reporter Elizabeth Corcoran described Mosaic when she wrote about the browser for The Washington Post in July of 1994, about a year after the browser was released.

But Mosaic has problems too. Created by a team of graduate students at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois, the original version is plagued with bugs that can freeze a computer.

It runs most smoothly on powerful computer workstations with direct connections to the Internet. But for those who pull Mosaic out of the on-line databases set up by the NCSA, there are no fat manuals, no customer support or help lines to call when the system fails.

Not exactly a glowing review. Corcoran goes on to mention how licenses of the software had enabled other businesses to patch these bugs and release more stable versions. But that misses something. The bugs were the point.

At the University of Illinois, in the NCSA lab, the developers of Mosaic were working on the browser more or less every night. They’d sit around and talk about what to do, and then everyone would go to their computers and make it happen. They worked solo or in pairs on each platform; one person covered the Mac version, another two would work on Windows, and so on. And those teams of ones and twos would race to ship out whatever they had just cooked up.

Features got out there fast, made possible by providing the software for free on their server. So every night the team could work on it, and ship a new version in the morning if they wanted. Inevitably, at this pace, bugs would get out. A glitch in HTML, or a crashed computer. But that didn’t stop or slow the team. In fact, they welcomed them.

The programmers of Mosaic were active on mailing lists and BBS boards. As soon as a new release was made available, the developers would hop into conversations with users to see if anything was wrong. If someone reported a Mac bug, then Aleks Totic, who was developing the Mac version of Mosaic, would respond almost in real-time, and then get to work on a fix. When he was done, he’d push a new version to the server and let everyone know. This is how Totic would later describe how that feedback loop worked:

So, nowadays it’s kind of commonplace; but back then, you would be working, and your U.S. users are going to sleep. But then you work alone for a little while, and then boom! You have all these emails with your European users who are just waking up. So, you were just running on adrenaline all the time. The feedback was instantaneous.

The Internet made global discussions possible, and enabled a never ending deluge of bug reports and feature requests. And that tight feedback loop acted as a catalyst and motivator for the entire team. Without the bugs, there’d be no conversation. And without the conversation, there’d be no Mosaic.

That responsiveness and pace are what made Mosaic stand out in its earliest days. It would spread rapidly by word of mouth. There were a lot of browser developers who were doing something similar at the time, but the folks at NCSA turned into a science. Had something you wanted to see in a browser? Talk to the Mosaic team, and they might actually do it. They might even have it by next week. That kind of excitement was hard to resist.

Those early adopters were Mosaic’s biggest evangelists. That gave them a reputation. And years later, when Netscape was created by that same team, the company would recruit some of the best programmers in the world on the back of that reputation. And they would adopt the same pace, and the same feedback loop, which Jim Clark would later dub Netscape Time. And that is what makes the development of Mosaic so staggering, thirty years after it was first released.