Knowledge versus market -- Sharing versus Ease of use.

This blog post is a continuation of the previous one about the history of editing and publishing in web browsers.

I'm now going to focus on the significant shift of vision about the Web between the two first browsers: WorldWideWeb versus Mosaic.

While the very first, WorldWideWeb, defined the web as being editable by default, Mosaic restricted the browser to become read-only. All features related to web page editing disappeared in Mosaic.

Later down the road, Netscape 4 re-introduced a web page editor. But as Netscape copied the interpretation of the Web from Mosaic, the web pages were no longer editable by default. This somewhat divided users in two distinct groups: readers versus authors. The editor in Netscape 4 was an external feature of the browser, opening a distinct window.

An interesting fact is that both WorldWideWeb and Netscape 4 were superseded by Mosaic and Internet Explorer, which were focusing strictly on read-only vision for the Web.

WorldWideWeb, the very first browser.

WorldWideWeb browser and the premises of the web was created in the lab called CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Their browser and the web spread within various research labs and universities. The main audience were scientists and librarians.

This page does a very nice summary of these first usages of the web:

The Web was originally conceived and developed to meet the demand for automated information-sharing between scientists in universities and institutes around the world.

This other page, in french, describes at length how scientists shared information from the 60s. The part about the web ("1.6 Le web (1984-1996)") is also an interesting read.

From these extracts, it isn't clear if the users were really editing web pages from the browser. It looks like it was mostly meant to query large databases of documents (scientific articles) and information (phonebooks). It sounds like it was already going into the direction of a read-only web.

Otherwise, we can easily explain why the web was originally restricted to scientists and librarians. This browser only worked on NeXT computers. This was a serious limitation to a widespread audience as these computers were targeting higher education and business markets.

ViolaWWW, the second browser

This browser got very little coverage in the history of browsers, but may have had a significant impact on the future of the web.

Many browsers appeared after WorldWideWeb. This web page is archiving the list of all of those.

But ViolaWWW was particularly important for three reasons:

ViolaWWW may have been the very precise project influencing the future of browser as read-only tools to browse the web. That mostly by inspiring the creation of Mosaic, which also got rid of editing features to focus on reading and browsing the web.

Mosaic, the first widespread browser.

Mosaic was developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).

It was the first to reach a very wide audience up to the mass-market. The main difference with past browsers was its compatibility with many hardwares and Operating Systems. It was the very first to support Unix, MacOS and Windows. The team behind it also focused a lot on making it easy to install and use.

This browser sealed this vision of the web by becoming much more popular. Mosaic, like ViolaWWW really focused on browsing the web. It contained no feature around editing the web pages.

Knowledge sharing versus Market and ease of use

Now it may be interesting to compare the vision of the web promoted at CERN/WorldWideWeb versus NCSA/Mosaic.

The CERN described the web in a simple and generic way:

The WorldWideWeb (W3) is a wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents. source

While the original web at CERN was meant to ease sharing the knowledge between scientists. It was probably not intentionally targeting any larger audience.

The web of Mosaic was clearly shifting to a wide audience of ordinary people. But the way they were promoting the Internet was quite different:

Mosaic offers a window into the Internet, presenting content and services to users in a friendly, interactive, point-and-click way. source

Mosaic Communications Corporation intends to support companies and accelerate the coming of this new era with tools that ease and advance online communications. source

Mosaic was promoting a whole market/ecosystem for the Internet. It would be made of companies providing services to consumers. It was drastically different from CERN phrasing: "giving universal access to large universe of documents".

I imagine we could debate at length about these two ways of framing the web, but I would like to instead focus on the most important appeal of Mosaic, which explained its success: The ease of use.

Mosaic surely gained lots of traction thanks to its support of most hardwares and operating system, but it also polished its ease of use. Unfortunately it only focused on browsing and reading the web. But I'm wondering, what if Mosaic also spent some time in these early days on helping the first users of the web to create and edit their own websites??

Instead, it promoted companies to build the services. Building the services here meant to build the web pages. This ultimately delegated content creation to experts in the early days.

What if Mosaic focused on the ease of use of web page editing? What if Mosaic continued along the lines of Tim Berners-Lee original vision of the web described over here.

If you think surfing hypertext is cool, that's because you haven't tried writing it.

The Web is universal and so should be able to encompass everything across the range from the very rough scribbled idea on the back of a virtual envelope to a beautifully polished work of art.

A first assumption, by the way, is that you have modeless interface in which browsing and editing are not separate functions. If to edit a page, you have to switch from browsing mode to editing mode, then you have lost already.

That's the vision I'd like to elaborate in 2023. Give a second change for the web to be fully editable (almost) by default.

Note: I published this article late after writing it. I actually wrote it before the release of Marc Andreessen's manifesto, which introduced lots of debate about his vision of tech, like here. This is typically the kind of discussion, which I find enlightning, but I really wanted to focus on actual actionnable Web features.


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