From chaos to conformity
Okay, say you have this shiny new car. It looks great, it performs like a demon, it features all the latest safety gadgets, and it's crawling with creature comforts. Just one problem, though. The local tinkerer, clearly consumed by jealousy, comes by sometime during the night to disassemble the entire thing. Sitting in the middle of a zillion bits and pieces the next morning, you quickly realize how totally useless this marvelously complicated car has become.
This is the Internet without a browser.
Far more than the blank slate it appears to be, a Web browser is ridiculously sophisticated and entirely capable of morphing the code-crazed reality of the Internet into the Matrix-like façade we now can't live without. But how did we get where we are today? We thought you'd never ask...
In 1969, The Beatles were recording "The End" while simultaneously making that end a reality. New cars cost $3000, man had (purportedly) landed on the moon, and futuristic gobbledygook like PCs and the Internet were the stuff of visionaries and/or lunatics.
There were no "browsers," apart from those people found lasciviously flipping through copies of National Geographic at the local library. Nevertheless, there was the genesis of a little something called ARPANET. Developed by the Department of Defense to promote networking research, ARPANET tethered together the mainframe computers of several universities and flourished. For 20 years, ARPANET was the Internet. That it was also the means to see into the pre-Web Web assures it of the lead-off position in our compendium.
WorldWideWeb (a.k.a The Nexus), 1991
Now comparatively slow and sluggish two decades after its launch, ARPANET was dead by 1990. In its place stood newer, fresher networking technologies and concepts, including something out of Switzerland that would not only stand the test of time but forever alter our culture. It was called the World Wide Web, and it was "invented" in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist at the Swiss-based physics research facility CERN.
Two years later, the World Wide Web had its first browser, the WorldWideWeb (note the lack of spaces). Also a Berners-Lee creation, the WorldWideWeb was the first readily available eye into the circa-1991 online world—a world that consisted primarily of CERN-centric information and zero porn sites. My, how quickly times change.
If you were actively geeky during the rise of the Internet, you undoubtedly remember Mosaic. To many, it was the first sign that something worthwhile was out there beyond their own computer. Developed by the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Mosaic was both widely available and refreshingly free of techno mumbo-jumbo. It was the first browser to display text and images together, the first to adopt the layout still favored by today's browsers, and the first to run comparatively easily on Microsoft computers. The Internet itself being in the midst of its coming-of-age party certainly didn't hurt.
Mosaic remained intensely popular for several years and would eventually form the bedrock for the Web's dominant '90s browser.
Netscape Navigator, 1994
"Best if viewed in Netscape" was a common sighting in the early days of surfing—and for good reason. Netscape's Navigator was for all intents and purposes the successor to Mosaic, and built by much of the same team. Steered by Marc Andreessen, Mosaic's leading hand, Netscape Navigator improved greatly on the Mosaic formula and made the Internet a colorful, vibrant place. It supported on-the-fly page loading and catered not to hoity-toity university-level connectivity but to the 14.4-kbps dial-up modem of Joe Average. And it was available everywhere, pushed by just about every entity that had a stake in widespread Internet adoption. What more could an early webstronaut want?
In an industry that would eventually abound with mercurial entities, the Scandinavian designed Opera has been a rare constant since its 1994 launch. While other browsers have come and gone—or at least experienced wild popularity/usage swings—Opera has steadily maintained its (admittedly small) desktop market share and slowly and meticulously expanded its reach far, far beyond the PC.
Reach? Well, sure. You'll find Opera-designed browsers for the Nintendo Wii and DS, iPad and Android tablets, smartphones, PDAs, and other mobile devices. Current stats put the number of Opera users worldwide at 300 million. Not too shabby, and it proves that initiative can compete successfully in the same arena where brute power most often reigns.
Netscape Navigator 3, 1996
Two years after the release of the original Navigator came the version that arguably cemented the Internet as the ubiquitous force all the nerds knew it would be. It was an exciting time for the Netscape braintrust, knowing that three out of four consumers logging on to the rapidly expanding online juggernaut were doing so through a Netscape product.
Yet in retrospect, one can see little tears in the Netscape fabric. Navigator 3 delivered fewer breakthrough concepts than Navigator 2, instead riding to some extent on the popularity of its predecessors. Nor did it fully address the bugs that plagued prior versions. But the most worrisome tear of all was taking place outside the Netscape realm, in Redmond, Washington.
Internet Explorer 3, 1996
Escaping the developmental womb in the same year and month as Navigator 3, Internet Explorer 3 was Microsoft's first serious salvo in what are now known as the "browser wars." So serious, in fact, that Netscape would never, ever recover.
That Navigator had been the superior product to that point in time was indisputable. Microsoft seemingly needed a little time to fully discover the Internet, and Explorer versions 1 and 2 were less than spectacular. Nevertheless, its tight integration with Windows had gained Microsoft a solid user base. When the third iteration appeared—again at no cost and sporting cool new features such as support for multimedia, Java applets, ActiveX controls, and add-ons like Internet Mail—the worm had turned. Navigator was all but forgotten before the turn of the century.
Firefox 1.0, 2004
Internet Explorer pwned the browser world through the dawn of the new millennium and beyond, yet satisfaction with the product was far from universal. Some felt Explorer was unnecessarily ponderous. Others were concerned over security issues or the way it was "forced" upon users as part of the Windows package.
It wasn't forced, of course, but when a promising open-source challenger appeared in 2004, the disillusioned had a viable place to turn. Firefox 1.0, with its roots in the remnants of Navigator and built by Netscape spin-off Mozilla Foundation, was far from perfect, but time has established it as a key turning point. Going forward, Firefox would stick and the browser biz has been a far more competitive place ever since.
Mobile Safari, 2007
"Let's go surfin' now, everybody's learning how, come on and safari with me."
With those words, Brian Wilson, always the visionary, successfully foreshadowed Steve Jobs' thought process some 40 years later when Jobs introduced the world to Apple's very own Web browser. Problem is that in the decade since, Safari hasn’t made inroads in the desktop environment.
The mobile environment, however, is a completely different story. Here, in a place where iPhones and iPads and iEverythings are so dominant, Mobile Safari—introduced three years after the original Safari in 2007—rules the roost. And in a world that's become increasingly untethered, that's a very big deal indeed.
Google Chrome, 2008
Truth is we quite easily could have selected a later version of Chrome. After all, Chrome only recently barged its way to the top of the heap, dethroning Internet Explorer and Firefox on the way to becoming the most widely used browser on the planet. But of the 30-some-odd iterations in its five-year history, none have been more impactful than the first.
Google took its time with Chrome, claiming for years that it didn't even want a browser, and then hiring a gaggle of ex-Firefox developers, cherry-picking the best code, and settling on the popular WebKit layout engine. Today, Chrome is minimalist, fast, and still trendy. Its dramatic ascension is unparalleled—and if Google's Chrome OS is any indication, the ascent of the Web browser is only just beginning.