Memoirs From the Browser Wars
"The original Internet Explorer team was just five or six people. By the time
Silverberg and others decided to rewrite the browser almost completely for
version 3.0, released in 1996, the team had grown to 100. By 1999, it was more
It's fun reading stories like this from the perspective of a witness.
Instead of reading to find out what happened, I read it to find out if the
author got it right. I was there. :-)
My weblog will remain focused on version control and .NET, but in conjunction
with the tenth
anniversary of Mosaic, please indulge me a brief trip down memory lane:
Life in the browser wars was a unique time period for me in my career.
Spyglass was sort of like my first real job. When I joined the company in
May 1992 the business was all about scientific data analysis tools. We had
a little over $3M from Greylock and Venrock. It was a fun company, but data
plotting isn't an explosive growth market. By 1994, everybody was starting
to realize that.
Management made the decision to transition our business completely and pursue
the market for web browsers. Tim Krauskopf, the founder and head of
development, asked me to write a web browser. I started work on Spyglass
Mosaic on April 5th, 1994. The demo for our first prospective customer was
already on the calendar in May.
I ended up as the Project Lead for the browser team. Yes, we licensed
the technology and trademarks from NCSA
(at the University of Illinois), but we never used any of the code. We
wrote our browser implementations completely from scratch, on Windows, MacOS,
We were not the first Mosaic licensee, but we were the last. Prior to
us, a company called Spry took the Mosaic code and tried to sell "Internet in a
Box". People still seem to get Spry and Spyglass confused because of the
Netscape didn't even exist yet, but things happened fast. Just a few
weeks after I started coding, Jim Clark rode into town and gathered a select
group of programmers from NCSA. Mosaic Communications Corporation was
born. It was interesting to note that certain people on the NCSA browser
team were not invited to the special meeting. I can still remember hearing
about how ticked off they were to be excluded. Champaign-Urbana is a very
small town. :-)
Spyglass had the legal right to the "Mosaic" trademark. A few tantrums
and lots of lawyering later, MCC changed its name to Netscape.
We thought we had a nice head start on Netscape. We had a really
top-notch team and we moved the rest of our developers over to browser work
quickly. We were ready to compete with anybody. But Jim Clark was,
after all, Jim Clark. His SGI-ness knew how to work the advantages of
being in Silicon Valley. He provided his young company with lots of press
coverage and very deep pockets.
We decided to approach this market with an OEM business model. Instead
of selling a browser to end users we developed core technology and sold it
to corporations who in turn provided it to their end users. We considered
ourselves to be the arms dealer for the browser wars. Over 120 companies
licensed Spyglass Mosaic so they could bundle it into their product. Our
stuff ended up in books, operating systems, ATM machines, set-top boxes, help
systems, and kiosks. It was an extremely profitable business. The
company grew fast and ours was one of the first Internet IPOs.
Along the way, we got involved in the standards process. In fact, I
became the chair of the IETF HTML Working
Group for the standardization of HTML 2.0.
I learned a lot through this experience.
In May 1994 I went to the first WWW
conference in Geneva, Tim Berners-Lee took me aside and shared his plans for
a World-Wide Web Consortium. It didn't take too long for the W3C to become the venue for HTML standards
discussions. Eventually this was A Good Thing. Both Netscape
and Microsoft became active participants in the W3C HTML Working Group.
Any group which didn't have their involvement was doomed to irrelevance.
For much of 1994, it seemed like we were ahead of Netscape. Shortly
after we released our 2.0 version, I remember one of the Netscape developers
griping about how their schedule had been moved up by six months. We
smiled because we knew we were the reason. They had not been taking us
seriously and they were being forced to do so.
But Netscape was running at a much faster pace. They got ahead of us on
features and they began to give their browser away at no cost to end
users. This made Netscape the standard by which all other browsers were
judged. If our browser didn't render something exactly like Netscape, it
was considered a bug. I hated fixing our browser to make it bug-compatible
with Netscape even though we had already coded it to "the standard".
Life's not fair sometimes. :-)
We won the Microsoft deal. I suppose only the higher echelons of
Spyglass management really know the gory details of this negotiation. I
was asked to be the primary technical contact for Microsoft and their effort to
integrate our browser into Windows 95. I went to Redmond and worked there
for a couple of weeks as part of the "Chicago" team. It was fun, but
weird. They gave me my own office. At dinner time, everyone went to
the cafeteria for food and then went back to work. On my first night, I
went back to my hotel at 11:30pm. I was one of the first to leave.
Internet Explorer 2.0 was basically Spyglass Mosaic with not too many
changes. IE 3.0 was a major upgrade, but still largely based on our
code. IE 4.0 was closer to a rewrite, but our code was still lingering
around -- we could tell by the presence of certain esoteric bugs that were
specific to our layout engine.
Licensing our browser was a huge win for Spyglass. And it was a huge
loss. We got a loud wake-up call when we tried to schedule our
second conference for our OEM browser customers. Our customers told
us they weren't coming because Microsoft was beating them up. The message
became clear: We sold our browser technology to 120 companies, but one of
them slaughtered the other 119.
The time between IE 3 and IE 4 was a defining period for Spyglass. It
was clear that the browser war had become a two-player race. Even with our
IPO stash, we didn't have the funding to keep up with Netscape. What was
interesting was the day we learned that Netscape didn't have the funding to keep
up with Microsoft.
For the development of IE 4.0, a new Program Manager appeared. His name
was Scott Isaacs and I started seeing him at the HTML standards group
meetings. At one of those meetings we sat down for a talk which was a
major turning point for me and for Spyglass. Scott told me that the IE
team had over 1,000 people.
I was stunned. That was 50 times the size of the Spyglass browser
team. It was almost as many people as Netscape had in their whole
company. I could have written the rest of the history of web browsers on
that day -- no other outcomes were possible.
After that day, it seemed like Spyglass declined fast. The company
turned its focus on the non-PC browser market. Things shuffled
around. I left Spyglass in January of 1997 and founded my own company. I left with no
regrets and no bitterness. Spyglass was an incredible learning experience
Looking back on the browser wars, Tim Krauskopf remarked that we had beaten
everybody who didn't outspend us by a factor of five. :-)