Firefox, Safari, Opera, Explorer or Chrome… today we pick our favorite web-browser as if it’s our preferred chocolate out of the box. And we take for granted the presence of common browser elements, the URL bar, the home or back buttons…today, we customize our browser easily and naturally to make it feel like a comfortable piece of clothing.
But in 1990, it was a whole different scene.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the first web browser (www.app) in 1990 on a NeXT computer.
His, and these other early browsers would hardly be recognizable as the browser we all know and use today.
Join us, as we journey back in time to the historic point at which humanity truly begins its digital life. Through AppStorey’s lens, take a look at this crux in computer history before Mosaic, before Viola —back to the earliest web.
At AppStorey, we’ll be using real vintage NeXT computers, just like the one Sir Tim used to invent the web, and we’ll be talking to the scientists who used those computers to make the modern mobile world we live in today, possible.
What you may not know about the earliest web, is that developers built up the many standard browser components we now take for granted today. This is the story of one such browser, SpiderWoman.
One can immediately see that SpiderWoman is very clean and nicely designed, but in terms of browser evolution, it is a bit behind our previous look at NetSurfer for NeXT.
SpiderWoman does not have a back or home button or URL bar or even inline images. The earliest web had no inline images, there was only text.
Developing the technologies that worked together to give us the web that we have today took a series of steps, some successful and some failed. And some amazing synergy of great computers, great brains and great teamwork was involved.
You’ll notice SpiderWoman has a “Shelf” style notion of bookmarks. Once you navigate to a page you like, simply drag it up to the shelf so you can easily access that page again later. As you link deeper into a site, a breadcrumb trail is left along below the shelf in a path style interface. This makes a highly visual browsing experience, missing from modern browsers today.
Much like it’s predecessors, SpiderWoman uses a large Open Panel instead of today’s URL bar. This more cumbersome approach may seem peculiar. At the time, opening up and configuring a panel, well, seemed like no big deal.
The fact is the URL itself was already a huge time-saver, and the URL is a lot of what made the web a success.
The URL, or Uniform Resource Locator, is the address system of every web page and they are an ingeniously versatile set of components.
A URL offers a protocol by which to communicate, and transfer files. It further states a machine name, so we can find the computer where the file lives and finally, the URL provides the filename or directory path, upon which to act.
“Before the web, you had to use at least three separate programs, one to locate and move the file between computers, one to unpack or decode the file, and finally some viewer in which to present the file’s content… let’s just say the web was faster” — Alex Cone, computing pioneer, speaking to AppStorey
URLs work with pre-web internet protocols like USENET news’s nntp: or finger: fish: and ftp: . From the start, URLs and thus, even the earliest web browsers supported gopher: and telnet: and many others. At least some of these will still work in your browser today. During the earliest web, these uncommon URLs were all more commonly used than the newest, rarest protocol – http: —a hypertext transfer protocol file, more commonly known as a web page.
To demonstrate just how prehistoric the early web was, the only reference to this great web browser are a handful of re-publishings of NNTP newsgroup announcements from comp.sys.next.announce kindly reprinted by google. For those with a NeXT computer, you can download SpiderWoman V0.15 and perform this demonstration yourself!
In today’s world, news, announcements and historic events are all captured in their entirety on computers. All accessible via the web, and available through search engines. There was a time, a prehistoric time, where none of this information was available electronically —these are some of the first news and announcements of the new, digital age of humanity.
Sort of like digital cave art.
Computer history can seem like sediments of stone, each layer built on top of the previous, but it can be hard to see what is underneath. Drop by the AppStorey historic site and see whats been dug up, inside the most innovative layer of computer history that catapulted us to today.