The platform that launched the Internet

Netscape Communications Corporation was founded on April 4, 1994–23 years ago today.

Marc Andreessen grew up in New Lisbon, Wisconsin, a town of 2,500 people located along the Lemonweir River in the center of the state. His father, Lowell, worked for local seed company; his mother, Patricia, for the mail-order giant, Lands’ End. New Lisbon was “Scandinavian, hard-core, very self-denying people who go through life never expecting to be happy,” he recalls. “The natural state of human beings is to be subsistence farmers, and that was my expectation.”

A Commodore 64, an 8-bit home computer introduced in 1982 by Commodore International. Its low retail price and easy availability led to the system becoming the market leader for three years. It remains the best-selling single personal computer model of all time.

Beginning in fifth grade, Andreessen developed an interest in programming. While Andreessen was in high school his parents bought him a Commodore 64 computer. Learning primarily from library books, he coded rudimentary games and programs to solve homework assignments. When he enrolled in the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he chose to major in computer science — not because he anticipated it would launch him on a lucrative career trajectory, but “largely because it required the least amount of work.” While an undergraduate, he got a part-time job at $6.85 per hour with the university’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). While working on the development of 3D visualization software, he had the idea of building a graphical interface to access resources on the Internet. With a colleague, Eric Bina, he developed Mosaic, the first Internet browser.

From a user experience standpoint, Mosaic created the Internet as we know it today.

Mosaic was a runaway success. Within a year, two million people had had downloaded the program, which was available for free from the NCSA website. Andreessen discussed with NCSA Director Larry Smarr the possibility of creating a company based on the browser. Smarr indicated it would be possible for him to do so outside of the university, but Andreessen lacked the connections and financial resources to launch a startup. So when he graduated he took a programming job at a computer security firm and moved to Palo Alto.

Within weeks of his arrival in California, Andreessen received a message from Jim Clark, the founder Silicon Graphics. Clark proposed to support Andreessen in launching a company based on Mosaic. To differentiate the new company’s browser from it’s NCSA-created inspiration, they decided to call their browser “Netscape.” They founded Netscape Communications Corporation on April 4, 1994 — 23 years ago today. Within three years the Netscape browser had 80% market share, and the company Andreessen and Clark founded together had experienced the biggest initial public offering in US history.

Mosaic, then Netscape, realized a dream first articulated by Vannevar Bush, in an article titled “As We May Think” that was published in the Atlantic Monthly in July 1945. Bush was a titanic figure of mid-twentieth-century science in the United States, best known for his work during World War II as director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development. In that capacity he led some of the most ambitious and large-scale R&D programs ever undertaken at that time (notably including the development of the atomic bomb); for his part in the development of analog computers; and as the author of Science: The Endless Frontier, which provided the rationale for the creation of the National Science Foundation. However, one of Bush’s most powerful and enduring contributions may be one that seemed relatively trivial at the time: “As We May Think.”

Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay for The Atlantic Monthly

In that essay Bush looked ahead to the frontier of societal advance in the postwar era. His emphasis was not on the products of publicly funded science but on the capacities of privately produced tools: “The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.” He envisioned how existing low-cost technologies might be further advanced and networked into a system for the storage and retrieval of ideas, which he called the memex: “Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.” This tool would allow the forward progress of human inquiry: “[Man] has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory.”

Among those who read this essay in Atlantic Monthly was a 25-year-old aerospace engineer named Douglas Engelbart, who at the time the article reached him was sitting in a hut in the South Pacific. Engelbart was so taken by the vision set forth in “As We May Think” that he redirected his career toward making that vision a reality. While working as a staff researcher at Stanford Research Institute, Engelbart published a report, produced with funding from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, titled “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,” which summarized his 15 years of reflection prompted by Vannevar Bush’s article. “Man’s population and gross product are increasing at a considerable rate, but the complexity of his problems grows still faster, and the urgency with which solutions must be found becomes steadily greater in response to the increased rate of activity and the increasingly global nature of that activity,” he wrote. “Augmenting man’s intellect, in the sense defined above, would warrant full pursuit by an enlightened society if there could be shown a reasonable approach and some plausible benefits.”

One of the small group of people who shared Engelbart’s vision of computers as enablers of human creativity was a psychologist and computer scientist named Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, known to all as J. C. R. Licklider or, simply, “Lick.” After receiving a triple bachelor of arts degree in 1937 from Washington University in St. Louis in physics, mathematics, and psychology, Licklider continued on to Harvard, where he received a PhD in psycho-acoustics and undertook a postdoctoral fellowship at the psycho- acoustics laboratory. Licklider moved to MIT in 1950, where he became interested in the new field of information technology, and from there, in 1957, to the legendary engineering firm of Bolt Beranek and Newman, Inc. (BBN), where he developed the first time- sharing computer.

In 1962, Licklider was appointed director of the Information Processing Techniques Office at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). He immediately set about building a network of researchers who shared his vision at university laboratories and think tanks. Among the researchers he involved in the project was Douglas Engelbart.

The work of that network ultimately became the Internet.

Six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of the modern Internet, all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale,” Andreessen wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, having moved on from Netscape years ealier to cofound the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. “More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services — from movies to agriculture to national defense. Software is eating the world.”

Marc Andreessen was right in stating that “software is eating the world,” but his meaning has been widely misinterpreted. Andreessen is not in fact describing an onslaught of Godzilla-like algorithms devouring jobs and laying waste to the global economy as we know it. Rather, he is describing the latest stage in the organic economic development of the economy on a global scale from structural simplicity to complexity — a process that has spanned millennia. In my recently-published book, The Code Economy: A Forty-Thousand-Year History, I call this evolutionary process the advance of code.

Our modern conception of code — programs run on digital computers — is just the latest incarnation of this process; code is in fact much older. How, one might ask, have we humans managed to get where we are today despite our abundant failings, including wars, famines, and a demonstrably meager capacity for society-wide planning and coordination? We have survived, and thrived, by developing productive activities that evolve into regular routines and standardized platforms — which is to say we have survived, and thrived, by creating and advancing code.

To paraphrase Isaac Newton, if we have seen further than others, it is by standing … on platforms.

How is this process evolutionary? In the economy, raw materials are like diatoms, amoebas, or plankton in the biological food chain, whereas standardized platforms are like complex multicellular organisms. As code advances, higher-level technologies feed on more fundamental technologies in much the same way more complex organisms feed on simpler organisms in the food chain. Platforms provide essential structures for the code economy: The infrastructure that underlies a city is a standardized platform. Written language is a standardized platform. The Internet is a standardized platform. Operating systems such as MS-DOS and Windows —both created by Microsoft Corporation, which was also founded on this date—are standardized platforms.

Marc Andreessen built Mosaic, then Netscape, on top of both existing operating systems and the Internet. In so doing he realized Vannevar Bush’s dream of “wholly new forms of encyclopedias … ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them” — the web browser.

Human civilization has thus advanced through the creation and improvement of code, which is built on layers of platforms that accumulate like the pipes and tunnels that lie below a great city.

This post is excerpted in part from The Code Economy: A Forty-Thousand-Year History (Oxford University Press, 2017). For more from the book, see my recent piece on Nautilus, “Civilization is Built on Code”.

The paraphrased quote from Isaac Newton is contained in his letter to Robert Hooke, February 15, 1676; the original is: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”