Why the Browser Matters

Lost some real n%^$as I knew from a long time ago
But Heaven or Hell, I’m hoping that they be where I’m a go
—Lil Wayne, Swag Surfin

Before my partner Marc Andreessen and his friends at the University of Illinois invented the browser in 1993, most people thought only scientists and researchers would use the Internet. The Internet was thought to be too arcane, insecure and slow to meet real business needs. Even after the team introduced Mosaic, the world’s first browser, almost nobody thought the Internet would be significant beyond the scientific community­—least of all the most important technology industry leaders who were busy building proprietary alternatives.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find much written arguing that the Internet would be meaningful in those days. The overwhelming favorites to dominate the race to become the Information Super Highway were competing proprietary technologies from industry powerhouses such as Oracle and Microsoft, which captured the imagination of the business press. This was not so illogical as most companies didn’t even run TCP/IP—they ran proprietary networking protocols such as AppleTalk, Netbios, and SNA. As late as November 1995, Bill Gates wrote a book entitled The Road Ahead in which he predicted that the Information Super Highway would rule the future. In the first edition, The Information Super Highway was to be the logical successor to the Internet, but definitely not using Internet technology. Gates later went back and changed the references from the Information Super Highway to the Internet, but that was not his original vision.

The implications of the propriety vision were not good. In Gates and Ellison’s minds, the corporations who owned the Information Super Highway would tax every transaction by charging a “vigorish” as Microsoft’s then Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold referred to it at the time.

It’s difficult to overstate the momentum that the proprietary Information Super Highway carried. After Mosaic, even Marc and his co-founder Jim Clark originally planned a business for video distribution to run on top of the proprietary Information Super Highway, not the Internet. It wasn’t until deep into the planning process that they decided that by improving the browser by making it secure, more functional and easier to use, they could make the Internet the network of the future.

Marc and Jim called the first Netscape browser Mozilla—meaning Mosaic Killer—to emphasize the mission to replace Mosaic and its importance. Today, if you type about:Mozilla into a Firefox browser (the Netscape derivative browser project), you still see the religious zealotry with which the team pursued the mission.

On the modern Internet, we all benefit from that passion and commitment. Had Netscape not succeeded so quickly and forced Microsoft into the browser war and out of their proprietary network agenda, the world likely would be quite different.  Even if the Internet had eventually won, it would have taken much longer and the world would have lost years of important innovation. And we all would have paid many vigorishes in the meanwhile.

After AOL acquired Netscape in 1999, the browser wars ended and browser innovation stopped for many years. Then more recently, projects like Firefox from Mozilla.org and Chrome from Google made major advances in the “under the hood” technology. It’s a testament to the fundamental importance of the browser that these invisible, but meaningful changes created major market share shifts. In the past 3 years an eye popping 500 million people have switched browsers.

Still, since 1996, the only major change to the browser’s user experience has been the addition of tabs. A truly stunning lack of innovation when you think about the underlying changes on the Internet. In 1996, there was no social networking, no video, no search that worked, no RSS, and no Twitter to name a few. It’s amazing to think that none of these advances led to any corresponding browser change.

Rockmelt and the next wave of innovation

All that began to change two years ago when Tim Howes and Eric Vishria founded Rockmelt, a company with a mission to reinvent the browser’s user experience. In order to adapt the browser to the last 15 years of Internet evolution, Rockmelt focuses on four major changes:

1. People—Perhaps the most important change in the past five years has been the shift from a page-centric to people-centric Internet. In response, Rockmelt builds the concept of friends right into the browser making people first class citizens from a technological perspective.

2. Information Flow—The modern web reverses the paradigm of getting information as information now flows to us. Rockmelt integrates this concept by making streams and feeds a basic part of the user interface.

3. Search—Back in 1996 during the time of the last browser UI innovations, searching the Internet was very different. In fact, the search products of the day didn’t work very well, so people didn’t use them very much. Google changed that in the early 2000s with their breakthrough product and company. Now, more than a decade later, Rockmelt changes the browser to take advantage of modern search.

4. Multiple Computing Devices—In the days of Mosaic and Netscape, a person was lucky to own one computer. As a result, the original browsers were all device specific. Your bookmarks, browsing history, configuration, etc. all stayed with the one device you owned. Now we have computers at home, at work, and in our pockets and the one device paradigm doesn’t work so well. With Rockmelt, the browser information lives in the cloud rather than on a device. As a result, things work the way modern people expect them to.

Rockmelt’s engagement numbers through their beta period seem to confirm their thesis:

Over 6 hours of use per person per day

Average of 3 chat conversations per user through RockMelt each day

60% of users 35 and under are active chatters, and they each send an average of 65 messages every day and 71% of the youngest cohort use chat.

Average of 20 uses of the information flow features per person per day

80% of searches go through the browser’s search interface rather than a search site

56% of users are age 24 and under, 80% under 35.

A very special group of people drove the original browser innovations and the Rockmelt team follows that tradition. Rockmelt’s CTO Tim Howes began his Internet career by inventing the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) with his colleagues at the University of Michigan. LDAP complemented and then ultimately replaced the previous standard, DAP (Directory Access Protocol), by simplifying, modernizing, and just plain fixing the old guard. Now Tim aims to do the same thing with the browser. His co-founder, Eric, was the best young executive that we had at Opsware and is building Rockmelt into a great company and a great place to work. It’s incredibly exciting to see them pick up where history left off.

Pouring out a little liquor for the Ultimate Browser Warrior

We all live in a better world today thanks to the efforts of those who fought the original browser wars. Technology history records many of them: Marc Andreessen, Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Jim Barksdale to name a few, but people who were there will tell you there was none more important or impactful than the late great Mike Homer. In fact, to a large extent Mike created the war by launching a withering PR attack that Microsoft couldn’t ignore. During that period, several times a quarter Mike would assemble an entire marketing campaign or product strategy in his sleep. Or maybe he didn’t sleep, but he would definitely think them up between 3 and 5 am. Out of those middle-of-the-night monologue brainstorming sessions emerged some of the greatest marketing ideas that I have ever seen. On one such night, he developed something called the Netscape Now one button download. At the time, software was considered extremely valuable and nobody was allowed to download it without going through a complex registration process. Mike took the conventional 15 steps and collapsed them into one. A concept so brilliant that it has been copied so often that everyone forgets that nobody did it until Mike invented it.

Even better than Mike the Ultimate Browser Warrior was Mike the person. In 1995, I was becoming an important voice at Netscape, but I still didn’t have much money, so I continued to drive the car that I could afford: a 1984 Oldsmobile two toned tan and cream—ice cream paint job—Cutlass Supreme that my father helped me to purchase a decade prior for $4,500. I tried to park the car in the back where nobody would see it, so as not to diminish my standing among my peers. One day Mike heard about the Cutlass. He said, “Ben I want a ride in your car.” My heart nearly stopped. I was trying to establish myself as an important contributor and the last thing that I needed was an executive who drove a car worth hundreds of thousands of dollars riding in my car, which was worth hundreds of dollars. When I showed up for the date, I was horrified to see that Mike brought our CFO, Peter Currie with him. I sat in my car with our CFO next to me, the most important executive in the company sitting in my back seat, and I was sweating bullets. Then Mike said: “Ben, I’ve named many products in my career, but I believe that I have just come up with the most appropriate name for a product in history. I am naming your car ‘La Bamba.’” And then he laughed that Mike Homer laugh that let me know that it was OK and he’d set the whole episode up to let me know that I was OK too. That small moment changed me from a guy trying to fit in to a true member of the team and meant the world to me.

It’s been over two years since Mike passed away from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but I still miss him like it was yesterday.  Heaven or Hell wherever he be that’s where I hope I’m a go.




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