B is for browser: An homage to 12 Web greats

In honor of Mosaic's 20th birthday, join us for an alphabetical appreciation of 12 of history's great windows on the Web.

B is for browser
April Montgomery/IDG Enterprise

20+ years of standout Web browsers

Gather round! We're here today to celebrate Mosaic's 20th birthday. You all know Mosaic, the first Web browser that included graphics in the same window as the text. It's quite the veteran now, but it was revolutionary in its time.

Of course, it wasn't the first Web browser, and certainly is not the last, but it's related to many of them. So while we're at it, let's celebrate Mosaic's forebears, kids and cousins as we tour the Web from the old days to the present.

Just for fun, we're going to introduce each browser with a little rhyme. Is everyone sitting comfortably? Then let's begin!

Matt Lake wrote this article in Google Docs using three different Web browsers. He'd have used four, but Netscape Navigator kept freezing.

WorldWideWeb browser in 1991

W is for WorldWideWeb (also a browser's name)
Tim Berners-Lee invented both, and named them
     both the same

The year was 1990, and something happening on the Internet was about to change the world. It was based on hypertext, a way of linking information online to make it easier to find. Data on any site could be cross-referenced and connected to data on any other site, making a pattern of links like a great big spider's web.

That year a nuclear scientist named Tim Berners-Lee sent his fellow researchers a Christmas present -- a package of protocols and software he'd developed on his . It would let people navigate this web; view pages, newsgroups and images; and download files. It would even let you create and edit your own pages to link into the web.

Its name? WorldWideWeb, of course!

ViolaWWW browser in 1993

V is for Viola, an X Window sensation
It gave the Web a Back button -- a wondrous

It's hard to believe now, but it took more than a year for Web browsers to include a go-back button. In the early days, if you wanted to take a step back you had to hope the page you were on had a link to the page you'd just been on, or type in the URL by hand.

That changed in 1992 when a UC Berkeley graduate student named Pei-Yuan Wei heard about Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web idea. Wei had developed a hyperlink browser, based on the Mac program HyperCard, to track his own research on Berkeley’s campus-networked Unix X Window platform. He adapted Viola into a Web browser called ViolaWWW and released it to the world in March '92. (Shown here: v3.7 from 1993.)

Lynx browser in mid-1990s
Georgia Tech Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access

L is for Lynx, so fast and graphics-free,
It looked just like a DOS screen, or so it seemed
     to me

Of course, Web browsers were only useful if people actually had access to the Internet, and back in 1992, that wasn't a whole lot of people. To get onto the Internet from your den or dorm room, you would dial into a college or corporate network. But how were you supposed to browse Web sites from a terminal?

A team at the University of Kansas developed the text-only browser Lynx, at first to browse the college network, then Usenet, then the world. At 21 this year, the cross-platform Lynx (shown here on Windows in the mid-'90s) is the longest-lived Web browser that's still developed and supported. But with its looks, it's not going to get invited to the prom anytime soon.

Cello browser in 1994
Matt Lake

C is for Cello, with professional appeal
It brought the Web to Windows; the lawyers
     made it real

It wasn't until 1993 that the Web broke out of academic circles. The dominant computing platform was Windows, but Web browsing at the time was all about the X Window and NeXT platforms found mostly at universities and research facilities.

Enter the first Web browser for Windows: Cello, so named because it was intended to be bigger than Viola. It was developed at Cornell's Legal Information Institute as a way for lawyers, who all used Windows PCs, to navigate the huge volumes of legal information available online. (1994's v. 1.01 is shown here.)

Cello had only a short time to shine before other browsers overshadowed it. But it did stake its claim in business and consumer computing, a territory that the Web was manifestly destined to conquer.

Mosaic browser in 1996
Matt Lake

M is for Mosaic, which gave the Web some
Its inline graphics, text and links brought surfin'

A few weeks into 1993, a new browser beta went out that would soon change everything. Mosaic came from a small team at the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). It supported FTP, NNTP and gopher protocols in addition to the Web's HTTP. Better yet, the software could display graphics alongside text in Web pages.

By the end of the year, Mosaic had been ported to multiple OSes and made freely available to the public. The Web exploded into the popular consciousness. (Shown here: v2.0 for Windows in 1996.)

It was such a phenomenon that the student team that built Mosaic, led by Marc Andreessen, graduated to the first moneymaking browser company and launched the next big thing in Web history...

Netscape Navigator browser 1996
Matt Lake

N's for Netscape Navigator, a polysyllabic spree
It ruled the roost for quite a while, till toppled
     by IE

Andreessen took the spec list he used to build Mosaic at NCSA and started a new company with Silicon Graphics founder Jim Clark in 1994. First named Mosaic Communications, it was renamed Netscape Communications after NCSA squawked.

Using entirely new code, the company built Netscape Navigator, a browsing superstar that most of us simply called Netscape (shown here in 1996). It won legions of fans by showing partially downloaded Web pages for instant readability, and by promptly supporting new Web features like frames and JavaScript.

But later releases were sluggish and crash-prone, and Microsoft's free Internet Explorer stole the lead. Facing extinction, Netscape open-sourced its browser code in 1998. Though a proprietary version kicked around until 2008, it was the open version that would rise to glory.

AOL browser 1999
Matt Lake

A is for AOL, whose browser spread like fire
Its dial-up access made us mad; its browser
     stoked our ire

It's easy to forget today, but in 1995 Web browsing was far from the dominant online experience. People used , with their proprietary interfaces and closed-off forums, and got charged by the minute for the privilege.

Then AOL opened access to Usenet and then to the Web at large. Sure, its built-in browser (shown here in 1999) handled HTML features clumsily (or not at all), but AOL's fierce marketing and new flat monthly fee cemented its popularity.

It was a victim of its own success, with busy lines, dropped connections and a backlash against all the AOL newbies cluttering up the Web. But thousands of AOL-ers just stuck with what they knew -- until something better came along.

Internet Explorer browser 1999
Matt Lake

I is for IE, which sounds kind of like a scream
Depending on the version, it's a good or
     a bad dream

Netscape and AOL stoked the furnaces of the Web, and every forward-thinking tech company wanted a piece of the action. Enter Microsoft in the summer of 1995 with its own browser.

Based on a Mosaic clone, Internet Explorer started out as a weak competitor to Netscape, but for the next few years, the two browsers leapfrogged each other in stability and support for new -- often proprietary, standard-breaking -- technologies. (Shown here: 1999's IE5.)

Meanwhile, a copy of IE was bundled into every Windows computer sold, and the 1998 U.S. v. Microsoft antitrust lawsuit did little to curb IE's spread. A decade into its life, IE6 was at the top of the tree with an 83% market share. But it wasn't destined to stay there forever.

Opera browser
Matt Lake

O is for Opera, the scrappy underdog
Its user base still loves it, 'cause it's not a
     resource hog

From its unusual beginnings as a Norwegian telco's research project, Opera has developed something of a cult following. It entered the market as a Windows browser in 1996 and earned fans for its early adoption of features the big guys didn't think about till later, including cascading style sheets and tabbed browsing.

Opera's fans tout its smart architecture, including a 2006 core retooling that made it easier to port to different platforms, as a reason for its longevity. Perhaps that's why Nintendo picked Opera for its Wii and DSi machines. (Shown here: Opera 5 circa 2000.)

Opera users may account for only about 3% to 5% of Net traffic, but they're a loyal group, and as they say backstage, it ain't over till the fat lady sings.

Safari browser beta 2003
Benj Edwards/PC World

S is for Safari, which you'd hardly call sublime
Unless you think of IE Mac, which froze up
     all the time

Microsoft sank a lot of money into Apple at the end of the '90s, so Cupertino didn't have to look far for a browser maker for Mac OS and, later, OS X. But IE for the Mac was a freeze-happy crash monkey from the get-go, and stayed that way till 2003, when Apple dumped it in favor of its own browser.

Apple picked well this time. Safari (shown here: 2003 beta) was born out of KHTML, a stable seven-year-old browsing engine on which a quirky Unix and Windows browser/file manager called Konqueror was built.

Safari's nothing very special except that it's not IE for Mac, and it's right there on the dock of your Mac and iDevice. In browsing as in real estate, it's all about location.

Firefox browser
Matt Lake

F is for Firefox, which rose from Netscape's ashes
It looked a little similar, but cut down on the

Firefox can trace its roots to 1993's Mosaic -- and its name to a briefcase full of trademark disputes. The Mosaic-coders-turned-Netscape-founders chose Mozilla, which reportedly stood for Mosaic Killer, as the code-name for their Navigator browser. And when Netscape later launched an open-source browser project, it too was called Mozilla.

The group ran into trademark troubles when it tried to name its browser, first Phoenix and then Firebird. So Mozilla's 2004 release was called Firefox (shown here: v. 1.5 in 2005), and it rapidly gained favor as a stable, speedy and extendable browser that wasn't from a reviled monolithic company.

Except that after six or seven years, it wasn't so stable and speedy, and people flocked back to a monolithic company -- but this time it wasn't Microsoft.

Google Chrome browser
Matt Lake

C is for Google's Chrome, poised to be the ruler
It earned the right to IE's throne, 'cause, face it,
     it's much cooler

Where Netscape and IE were in the mid-1990s, Google Chrome is now. Launched in late 2008 as Firefox and IE were mired in incompatibility and instability, Chrome's speed, minimalist interface and rapid release schedule grabbed headlines from the get-go. (Shown here: Apps tab in v. 24 with third-party skin.)

Today it's perceived as stable, secure and slick enough to outdraw the other browsers on the market, and it's gobbled up market share. While browser usage stats vary wildly depending on who's measuring, most Web analytics sites place Chrome firmly in first place with about 30% of the market. And with versions on all the major desktop and mobile platforms (including its own OS), Chrome seems poised for the long haul.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.