Inside the Internet
What Was the First Web Browser?
Jun 19th, 2019
Ask anyone what the first web browser was and - if they’re old enough to remember life before the internet - you’ll hear, “Netscape.” While Netscape may have been one of the first internet browsers to make a splash on the market, there were unsung heroes laying the foundations for web browsers years before Netscape was born.
By simple definition, web browsers connect users with anything and everything that is on the internet. More technically speaking, web browsers are software applications that retrieve and display information from website pages, text, images, videos and overall content.
In 1990, almost four years before Netscape, the founder of the World Wide Web Foundation and W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee developed the first-ever web browser called…
wait for it...
Nexus and Mosaic
To avoid confusion with the World Wide Web, this internet browser was renamed Nexus. Nexus was developed for NeXTStep operating system; both a browser and an editor, Nexus used a graphical user interface (GUI). With limited capabilities, the browser could not display web pages with embedded graphics but did allow users to connect to the internet. This wasn’t too much of a problem since most people used dial-up internet. These connections were typically 20-50 kbps and powered by a 9600 baud modem - a baud refers to symbols per second. If the phone lines were particularly busy or far away, the connection suffered. Baby steps.
While Nexus was only used for the NeXTStep OS, the first commercially-available internet browser was Mosaic. Computer programmers Marc Andreessen and Jamie Zawinski developed the NCSA Mosaic web browser in 1993. In fact, the development of Mosaic was funded by the Gore Bill, introduced in 1991 by - you guessed it - Al Gore. It went through a variety of releases, and by 1994, further development of the browser was supported by the National Science Foundation. In 1995, Mosaic was licensed by Microsoft to create Internet Explorer. Shout out to Andreessen and Zawinski, giving the people what they want (electronic mail, chatrooms, DogPile!), when they want it (1993!).
Mosaic incorporated the initial functionalities offered by Nexus and embedded graphics directly in web pages. When they released it, the browser was compatible with Microsoft Windows, Macintosh, and Unix X Window System - the most commonly used operating systems at the time. This meant users could see images and use it on their home computers at the same time. The NCSA Mosaic spread like wildfire. This era of internet browsing was powered by 56k modems (a few generations after 9600 baud modems) which meant you might need to wait a few hours for your MP3 songs to load but Prodigy worked fine.
Where did modern web browsers come from?
Many versions of web browsers have come and gone, but the features we associate with modern web browsers are from Netscape Navigator, which was built on the foundations of Mosaic. While it wasn’t the very first, Netscape was the earliest widely-used browser, setting an industry standard.
Early on, Netscape introduced progressive renderings of pages and images. This allowed the text on a page to be read before the entire page or images completely downloaded. Netscape 1.0 first appeared on the market in October 1994 under the name “Mozilla” (sound familiar?).
WorldWideWeb started it all, kicking off almost 30 years of internet-browsing joy. We’ve seen a rapid improvement in web browsers due to a competitive marketplace - in fact, Microsoft has a new version of Edge for Macs. While Netscape was the first popular browser, we now have “the big five:” Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari and Opera. All these advancements are powered by the basic source code from the Mozilla project; let’s be honest, life without internet browsing would be pretty dull.