As their conversation speeds along, Eich filled in the details of that moment in time, sharing his own insights, pronouncements on programming languages, and what he sees when he looks back.
He remembered the excitement of the defining battles in the early days of the web — the quarter-century of browser innovation that followed. Eich went on to co-found the Mozilla community, as well as the Mozilla Foundation, which develops open source projects like the Firefox web browser, and in 2015 became the CEO of Brave Software, which created the innovative ad-blocking web browser Brave.
So finally, Eich shared some thoughts on what it all ultimately meant.
Fridman called it “one of my favorite conversations ever.”
Innovating on the Standard
Eich had graduated from college in a pre-web era in which no single network standard was clearly dominant. “Nobody knew in the 1980s what was going to win. All the proprietary stacks like IBM’s Systems Network Architecture and DECnet and all these other protocols were saying ‘We’re going to do it!’ or ‘It’s going to be a heterogeneous future!’
“Instead it was Berkeley Unix and the TCP/IP stack that dated back to the ARPANET that won. And I think we knew it. We all knew it at SGI, but the salespeople didn’t, and so they kept trying to get multiple network stacks into operating.”
But that’s not the only time Eich witnessed the birth of a standard. Browsing the internet before 1993 had involved “text-y” applications for reading email and Usenet newsgroups, Eich remembers — until this changed with the release of the Mosaic browser, created by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, who were then programmers working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was the first web browser that displayed images within a web page.
In 1994, Andreessen went on to found Netscape, the company behind the groundbreaking Netscape browser (originally called Mosaic). But Eich points out something about internet history which is often overlooked: the two programmers “innovated on the HTML standard. In particular, Marc sent this email saying, ‘Hey everybody, we think you should be able to put an image in a page.’ And you know when he sent that, Eric Bina had already written the code.
“I talked to Tim Berners-Lee more recently just a few years ago, and he was like, ‘Aw, we had another way of doing it.’ And it didn’t work out, because Marc shipped his in Mosaic.”
Then the world would’ve been left with Microsoft’s scripting language for web developers, “And it would’ve been Visual Basic Script. It would’ve been bad.”
Could Netscape Kill Windows?
The language had to be finished within 10 days for a crucial demo. Asked if he got any sleep, Eich replies, “Not enough.” And in the months that followed, “We had a bunch of dot releases where we fixed security bugs like maniacs.”
But it was a time of dreaming big, and Eich also remembers brainstorming with Andreessen, who before their IPO was making bold claims like “Netscape plus Java kills Windows” and daring to imagine the farthest possible implications of a world where programs are being run by your web browser. “He was ambitious, and he wanted to have Netscape possibly be in control of the ball,” he said.
But of course, they were also always aware of a looming threat from Microsoft.
Exploring Internet Explorer
Of course, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which was a close copy to Netscape Navigator, went on to be the most widely-used browser, at one point commanding 95% of the browser market. Eich said that Netscape was “mercilessly crushed” by Microsoft — which among other things had begun selling its server software at a reduced price to undercut Netscape’s cashflow in a crucial area. Netscape itself was acquired by America Online. The browser’s code was open sourced, thus forming the basis for what would become Firefox.
Fridman asked Eich how he felt about Microsoft’s role in developing competing browsers throughout the years, ultimately phrasing the question this way: “Is the world worse off because Internet Explorer exists?” But Eich first distinguishes between Microsoft of today and Microsoft, which “back then,” Bill Gates was an “aggressive character, not really original, in my view — not an originator.”
So why did Internet Explorer win the browser wars? “Distribution,” Eich answers quickly. “Distribution matters more than anything. And this is why, even now we’re seeing in the browser wars, Edge doing better. Because it’s being foisted on people who have Windows.”
“That’s why everybody at Netscape felt, ‘We’re doomed.’”
He added, “Apple did it with Safari too. It’s not unique to Microsoft.”
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