It would not be absurd to say that of all inventions ever created by humankind – the wheel, the steam engine, the light bulb, and so on – the most significant is the internet. Like these other technologies, it has ushered in societal change, but unlike them, this change has been almost instant, and it has had a profound impact on nearly every aspect of our lives.
To grasp this, consider that just one hundred years ago, essential parts of our daily lives – smartphones, computers, the internet – were beyond even the most creative imagination. Now, we often struggle to comprehend life without them. How this transformation started and how it is playing out today is a fascinating story that helps us piece together the world we live in.
Embedded in the story of how the internet changed our lives forever is the history of the web browser. This is because it was the web browser that helped take the internet out of the academic world and into the mainstream, and once people got a taste of its power, they couldn't stop, leading to a full-on revolution.
Today, the browser remains every bit as relevant; in fact, many people have come to associate the internet and their web browser as the same thing (which they're not). This makes it interesting and important to study web browsers' history, the computer programs that serve as the building blocks for our modern age.
Brief History of the Internet
While the web browser as we know it today didn't come onto the scene until around 1990, it had been in the making for several decades, albeit indirectly, as part of the overall effort to develop the internet.
This means we can trace the origin of the browser to the early days of the internet, which many people do not know takes us all the way back to the 1950s.
At this point, the internet was a defense project with the primary objective of creating a communications network that would allow people to communicate without using phone lines. During the 1950s (the beginning of the Cold War), people were convinced these means of communication were unreliable because they could be attacked and wiped out, which just means that the internet, an era-defining tool, was in part rooted in people's paranoia about commies.
Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Cold War fear began dying down. Computer scientists continued to build on the idea of creating computer networks that would help these devices communicate with one another over long distances. The main issue was that the many different research teams working on these networks were creating separate networks that couldn't communicate with one another. This severely limited their functionality and became a focus of the entire group working on these projects.
In the 1970s, the term "internetworking" was used to describe the purpose of creating a common internet protocol that would make it easier for computers to read information from other networks. It laid the groundwork for not only the web browser but also the term "internet."
By the 1980s, researchers were getting very close to creating this "internet" that would make a truly global network possible, setting the stage for the invention of the browser and the beginning of a new era.
The History of the Web Browser
WorldWideWeb: The First Web Browser
In the early 1980s, a British scientist named Tim Berners-Lee, while working at the Swiss-based European Organization of Nuclear Research (known as CERN for its letters in French), created a computer program called Enquire. The program was designed to make it easier for the many different people working at CERN to share information.
Up until this point, information was stored on many different computers, making it incredibly difficult to find things unless you knew exactly where to look. Enquire helped address this by creating files that could easily be found and linked to one another using hypertext. But this program ran on CERN's proprietary operating system, which means few people were able to really access it and use it. The idea died when Berners-Lee left CERN but was revived when he came back in 1989.
Seeing that the problem of information management at CERN had not been solved since his last stint at the institute, Berners-Lee set out to solve it once again. This time, thanks to other developments in computer science, Berners-Lee was able to create something that would become remarkably useful: the World Wide Web.
The World Wide Web is essentially an information storage system in which data is kept on servers and accessed when a web browser seeks out its Universal Resource Locator (URL). It was a system that allowed all the information (at the time at CERN but later in the world) to be stored in one place and easily accessed by anyone who wanted it. One significant innovation was the use of hypertext, which was displayed on the screen and would take the user directly to another resource stored on the server.
This idea, which Berners-Lee and his colleague Robert Cailliau received approval to develop in 1990, led to the creation of the first web browser: WorldWideWeb. A new era was officially born.
What is a Web Browser?
You might be wondering what exactly a web browser is now that you know the first web browser came into existence in 1990 when Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN.
In short, it's a computer program, and its purpose is to display and retrieve information. It does this by using URLs, which are assigned to each data set (web page) stored on the webserver.
So, this means that when you type something into your browser, you're actually entering an address, which the browser will use to get the information you want to see. Another key function of a browser is interpreting computer code and presenting it to you in an understandable way.
The web browser is so remarkable in part for its simplicity for the end-user. It's a complicated program, but anyone can use it, meaning the "internet" could now be accessed by the masses, which would quickly bring on rapid change in society.
The Early Browsers
The WorldWideWeb browser created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990 was a game-changer. Still, it wasn't going to be the browser that would help take the internet mainstream, mainly because it ran on the NeXT operating system, which was not widely used. However, subsequent versions of the browser would help make it more accessible and would lead to mass downloads and the first internet boom in history.
Here's a summary of some of the early web browsers and their contributions to what we have today.
In 1991, just one year after the creation of WorldWideWeb, two college students from Finland created Erwise. It was the first browser to use a graphical interface, meaning it could display not only text but also images, which was a big deal.
Users could also search for words on a page, a feature never before seen in a web browser, and it could also handle multiple fonts, underline hyperlinks, and open more than one window at a time. All very basic features now but that were very innovative at the time.
However, while Erwise was undoubtedly an exciting program, it never really took off, primarily due to a lack of funding available in Finland at the time. But despite its failure as a business, it helped lay the groundwork for the next few browsers, which would bring things along to the point of explosion.
It was a small project which hit the market in 1992 but did not achieve success largely because it worked only on Mac computers and not PCs. The development of ViolaWWW was important to the history of web browsers because it was the first that allowed developers to embed scripts in the browser page, which laid the groundwork for Java-script.
Later in the 1990s, Java-script would play a huge role in the growth of the web as it made web pages more functional and more interactive, helping make the internet more appealing to the masses and leading to its eventual widespread adaptation.
Between 1990, when Berners-Lee invented WorldWideWeb, and 1993, the web browser went from a mere idea to a tool for revolution. While anyone on the ground floor of this phenomenon could see the potential of this program, it had yet to make it into the mainstream.
Mosaic was similar to the browsers that came before it, but it had a few extra things going for it that helped it stand out from the crowd and become the first browser to be used en masse.
First, Mosaic introduced the <IMG> tag allowing for inline images. This meant web pages created for Mosaic could be made to look like any other form of traditional media people would be used to seeing, a vital component for convincing people to start reading more from a screen.
It also allowed for things such as bookmarks, video clips, sound, forms, and history files, all of which had never been seen before with a browser.
Mosaic was also super easy to download – anyone could do it – and it had one feature that no other browser had ever had – it worked on both Macs and PCs.
All of these features turned Mosaic into the rising star of the internet world. Combined with the growth in internet service providers (ISPs) – those in charge of building the infrastructure needed to create the web – the release of Mosaic was the first domino to fall in our digital revolution, ushering in a new era.
To give you an idea, consider that when Mosaic was released, there were fewer than 100 websites. By 1995, there were more than 10,000, and by 2000, there were more than 10,000,000.
This growth wasn't all the result of Mosaic, and it was only made possible by the tremendous efforts to expand infrastructure and increase access. But Mosaic allowed developers to do more with a website than ever before, specifically in terms of adding graphics, images, and scripts, meaning that online content could be made more accessible and marketable. Blogs grew considerably during this time as people grabbed onto the idea that anyone with a connection could publish content on the internet.
In 1994, when Mosaic was far and away the most popular browser out there, Marc Andreesen, teaming up with colleague Jim Clark, launched a company that would create a browser better than Mosaic, seize the market, make them rich, and change history.
Their first browser, confusingly, was called the Mosaic Netscape 0.9. Still, it had nothing to do with the original Mosaic (this name was often used in a generic sense to refer to a browser's ability to work on multiple platforms; it fit together across different operating systems like a mosaic).
However, shortly after, Andreesen and Clark dropped the term mosaic and settled on Netscape as both the name of their company and browser. It quickly became the industry leader thanks to features such as Java-script and partial-screen loading, which allowed users to begin reading information on a page even when it wasn't fully loaded. A novel idea at the time that greatly improved the web experience.
All of this helped Netscape capture well over half the browser market share. When the company went public in 1995, it was valued at almost $3 billion, more than double the estimate. This success not only helped Netscape improve its standing and turn its founders into celebrities, but it also shook the computing world and opened the door for the consumer web revolution, which helped usher in the digital age in which we now live.
It's also worth noting that the Netscape IPO also helped exacerbate the growing dot-com bubble; investors were pouring money into internet companies without knowing much about them. This inflated the market, eventually leading to a crash. Nevertheless, the growth and success of Netscape certainly changed things and is an important moment in the history of the web browser.
The Browser Wars: The Rise of Internet Explorer
Netscape's initial success demonstrated to those working in the world of computers and the internet that things had changed forever, and this struck fear into the industry's most important players at the time. One such company was a Seattle-based firm known as Microsoft.
Netscape was a threat to Microsoft, which by the late 1990s had developed its own browser – Internet Explorer – but which was widely considered to be an inferior product. Because of its cross-platform functionality, one could use Netscape on a Windows PC or a Mac, or any other device for that matter.
This lead many to speculate that the days of the operating system were over. Computers would run through browsers, which could work on any machine, democratizing the software industry and reducing its considerable barriers to entry.
However, Microsoft had built its empire selling its proprietary operating system, Windows, and so saw this development, spearheaded by companies like Netscape, as a threat. So, it sought to beat out the upstart company and reshape the web's development in its own image. And it did this by pouring the massive resources at Microsoft's disposal into improving its browser (which in 1995 and 1996 was considered to be vastly inferior to Netscape).
This period in which Microsoft set out to defeat and destroy Netscape became known as the Browser Wars, and it radically shaped browser history. To be more specific, in 1996, Netscape controlled over 80 percent of the browser market. By the end of 1998, it controlled around 40 percent, and in 1999, it was replaced by Internet Explorer. This rapid decline led to Netscape's selling out to AOL in 2000, which continued to distribute the browser but oversaw its continued demise until its eventual extinction in 2008.
Microsoft managed to so quickly turn the tables in the browser industry by investing heavily in their product so that it would be as good as if not better than Netscape. They also leveraged the rest of their business to help with the proliferation of its browser. More specifically, Windows computers were released with Internet Explorer (Microsoft's browser) already installed, which allowed it to get a leg up on the market and grow, eventually leading to its victory in the browser world.
By 2003, Microsoft's Internet Explorer controlled over 92 percent of the market, representing a complete reversal of the situation in 1995. However, while Microsoft had managed to completely take over the browser market in less than ten years, competition would soon emerge from elsewhere, once again reshaping the history of web browsers.
In the early 2000s, after Netscape became part of AOL, the Mozilla Foundation was formed to preserve the original Netscape code and provide an open-sourced, independent browser to those who wanted one. In the early days, Mozilla did not take much from Internet Explorer's market share. Still, throughout the 2000s, as Internet Explorer began to lag behind once again, Mozilla carved out more than 30 percent. However, by 2009, Mozilla's growth peaked, and it would stop competing against Internet Explorer as a new player entered the scene to change things dramatically.
After Microsoft rose to dominance in the late 1990s and brought companies like Netscape to their knees, it seemed as though the history of the browser had come to an end. However, as had been the case after its initial release, Internet Explorer was becoming an inferior product. An opportunity opened for a new company to step in and take over the browser market. What better company to do so than the rising star of the internet world – Google.
Google launched its proprietary browser – Chrome – in 2008, after years of development spearheaded by programmers who had gotten their start with Mozilla. By the end of 2012, just four years after its launch, Google Chrome replaced Internet Explorer as the most popular browser thanks to its ease-of-use, cross-platform functionality, speed, and special features related to tabs and bookmarks.
Over the next few years, Chrome continued to dominate the browser market and does so as of writing. In 2020, Chrome controls more than 60 percent of the browser market. It appears this will stay this way for the foreseeable future, but if the rest of browser history teaches us anything, it's there is always someone waiting in the wings to take your spot.
In the early 2000s, likely following Microsoft's move of attaching a browser to its operating system, Apple released Safari, a browser designed specifically for Mac. For a time, it was a popular choice for Apple users, but it never made any sort of significant dent in the overall market. It continues to be fairly popular in some niches to this day. Safari has around 20 percent of the market and is the second most popular browser out there today.
Internet Explorer's popularity dwindled throughout the late 2000s, primarily because it became slow and out of date, and Microsoft found itself on the outside looking into the browser world. Not wanting to continue to miss out, the company set out to fix the problem but found one key issue was that the name "Internet Explorer" had become synonymous with an inferior browser. This is interesting, when we consider just ten years prior, that browser was at the top of the game (although supporters of Netscape in the Browser Wars would say the product was always worse but forced into the market thanks to Microsoft's financial influence).
As a result, to try and get back into the game, Microsoft had to re-brand, and it did so by releasing Edge, which is the most current version of Microsoft's browser. It has received plenty of good reviews, but it might be too late for Microsoft as Edge. Despite being launched in 2015, it is still not one of the top five browsers in use today.
This example, if nothing else, shows us how quickly a company can fall from public favor, especially when it comes to products like web browsers, which people use on a near-constant basis.
A retelling of the history of web browsers would not be entirely complete if we didn't mention the TOR browser. TOR was developed alongside The Onion Router (TOR) project, which seeks to establish a web in which people can operate under complete anonymity; most of you might know this as the "Dark Web."
The TOR Browser gives one access to this side of the internet, and although anything but mainstream, its existence points to an issue in modern browsers: privacy. Since people use web browsers for so much, there is tons of data to be mined. Up until now, no one has seemed to care all that much, but who knows what the future holds.
The Future of the Web Browser
The history of the web browser is a short but tumultuous one. After first breaking onto the scene in 1990 thanks to a small research project carried out by Tim Berners-Lee, the browser has become one of the mainstays of modern life. It's hard to imagine where we would be without it, but it's even harder to imagine what's coming next.
As mentioned, the issue of privacy is becoming one that people are beginning to care increasingly about as our lives continue to move online. The world's most popular browser – Chrome – is developed by a company – Google – that is notorious for espousing personal privacy while simultaneously tracking everything you do to make money off you from advertising.
Does this mean we're poised for yet another chapter in the history of the web browser? Only time will tell, but if history is a harbinger of things to come, we can expect nothing that exists today to remain the same tomorrow.