It’s a common joke, but in fact US Senator Al Gore did help jumpstart his nation’s Internet infrastructure, and along the way his bill led to the creation of the Mosaic web browser, ancestor to both Firefox and Internet Explorer – two web browsers which could not be more different today.
By September of 2017, the Firefox web browser celebrates its 15th birthday. Initially launched as “Phoenix,” the Mozilla corporation spun the browser off separately from its bundled Mozilla Application Suite, which originally had four apps bundled together: the browser, an email client, a web page editor, and an IRC client. But if you’re surprised to hear that Firefox is that old, you’ll be amazed to find out that its lineage dates back even further, almost to the beginning of the web itself, and brings it weirdly close to the lineage of other web browsers, including the one with the big blue “E” for a logo.
The Senator, Vice President, and presidential candidate Al Gore is today the butt of many jokes about his claiming to have “created the Internet.” It’s an Internet meme about as old as the World Wide Web. What the memes don’t tell you is that Mr Gore was one of the crop known as Atari Democrats – a breed of early technology enthusiasts who attempted to legislate the pioneer days of technology in the United States.
In 1991, United States, then-Senator Al Gore passed the High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991, an act so close to his evangelizing that it became known as the “Gore Bill.” In fact, the burgeoning electronic information infrastructure forming across the continent at the time was dubbed, by Gore, as the “information superhighway.” Haven’t heard that phrase in a while, have you?
Part of the provision of the Gore Bill was funding for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), which eventually went to application developer Marc Andreessen. Andreessen and a team developed a prototype browser for the World Wide Web, which had just become a thing through the efforts of Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
Spyglass and Mosaic
The browser was named “Mosaic,” and it originally ran on the X-Windows system on Unix platforms. Andreessen later left the NCSA to enter the private sector with his own company, Mosaic Communications Corporation – that company would go on to change its name to Netscape Communications Corporation, but we have a plot twist to cover first.
A software company called Spyglass, Inc. happened to come along in the mid-1990s, licensing NCSA technology to sell in the private sector. One of Spyglass’ customers was Microsoft, which obtained a license to distribute the Mosaic web browser. Microsoft re-rolled Spyglass into its own product, which we still know today as Internet Explorer.
Netscape and Anti-Trust
Meanwhile, Netscape Communications Corporation would go on to release Netscape Navigator starting in 1994. Navigator became the dominant web browser on the WWW during the 1990s; it was the standard, the one you coded for. Microsoft’s license, meanwhile, let it bundle Internet Explorer with its then-new Windows operating system. As Windows became the dominant desktop more and more, Netscape’s market share faded away, and eventually the Netscape Communications Corporation as well. This event became the inciting force behind the United States’ antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, filed in 1998. The long, dragged out trial was relegated to background noise in the news by the early 2000s, when a settlement was reached with the US Justice Department. Not much, as history shows, came of the case.
Zawinski and Mozilla
One of the last acts of Netscape Communications was to jettison an open-source escape pod, as dying tech corporations do. That was the release of Navigator’s code base as open source, now the property of the Mozilla Project. We’re finally coming back to the part that most of today’s generation of tech geeks know.
The Mozilla Foundation was launched in 2003, as a continuation of the Netscape Navigator legacy. But we just skipped over the most interesting character in this story: None other than hacker legend Jamie Zawinski had a hand in creating Navigator, and the name ‘Mozilla’ was his idea. He tells you all about his resume on his own home site, being one of the pioneers of the web. But the show-stopper is his own log of the development time. Follow this link and scroll down anyway (Zawinski’s warning at the top is just to drive away lawyers and muggles). You will be rewarded with the funniest, most unhinged, most raving development story ever written, and you just might even appreciate how little things have changed by now!
It’s A Wrap!
Oh, yeah, Zawinski doesn’t even code professionally anymore. He dodged the Dot-Com bust when the smart money was dodging, and today still keeps a hand in the odd open-source project (the XScreensaver Project, for instance), while his main gig is running San Francisco’s DNA Lounge – a happening joint with much live hosted music. And there he is today, having lived the lives of several Rileys. And here we are in an election and Al Gore must be wondering if we’re ever letting that meme go.
So: Al Gore, NCSA, Mosaic, Spyglass, Internet Explorer, Netscape, Mozilla, Firefox. Now you know the rest of the story.
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