I now return to my telling of the events of 20 years ago, as the web emerged from its academic origins and became the single biggest wave of change to hit the tech industry…
It was October 1994, and a startup still called Mosaic Communications had just launched the beta of its “Netscape” browser (press release) with a completely radical pricing strategy: free1. It’s hard to explain now just how electrifying that release was, other than to say that for many of us, the launch of the Netscape browser (less than six months since the founding of the company) was like the firing of a starting gun. Clearly, it was time to pick up the pace and start running – as fast as possible. But in which direction?
The answer, for those in know, was “Chicago” and an event with the unwieldy name of “The Second International WWW Conference: Mosaic and the Web,” that kicked off exactly 20 years ago today.
Though it had been preceded by a decidedly academic First International WWW Conference (with fewer than 400 participants) some six months earlier at CERN, the Second International WWW Conference in Chicago was truly the web’s first industry event. It had a Vendor Exhibits area, featuring tech giants Microsoft, IBM, HP, DEC, and Sun, plus a dozen smaller companies. And for potential attendees, ticket demand greatly exceeded supply, with nearly 1,000 people getting wait-listed – or worse – showing up at the venue to find it sold out. For all of us who did get in, seeing so many people turned away totally reinforced that we were at the start of something HUGE.
So now, let me take you inside that historic event, through a combination of my most vivid memories and a memory-enhancing treasure trove of 20-year-old web pages I recently discovered in an almost completely intact copy of the event’s official site, saved for posterity by the Wayback Machine. I encourage you to take some time to check it out; all of the awesome graphics and many of the “hard facts” in this post came from there. To my great surprise, the site even includes a directory of digital photos from the conference, presumably captured with a QuickTake 100, the first consumer digital camera (launched four months earlier via an unlikely partnership between Apple and Kodak). Here are my two favorite shots, taken at the registration area (image credit to Ira Goldstein and/or Ed Burns):
The Web’s First Trade Show
Though much of the conference was dedicated to presentations, panel discussions, and tutorials, I was much more focused more on networking (human-to-human IRL) and market research. When the Vendor Exhibits opened up, I was among the first to enter, keen to find answers to questions like: What are the most promising market segments for a company like Silicon Graphics? What are our competitors offering and where do they appear to be heading? And is anyone already shipping truly great authoring software for this new medium?
Fortunately, what I saw from our competitors was underwhelming. For example, here’s how HP described what they were showing (as captured on the vendor exhibits page): “The WWW represents a tremendous opportunity. Stop by the HP booth and see what we’re doing with it. Try your hand at “surfing the net”.” IBM’s pitch was more detailed, but remarkably less coherent: “Take a tour through IBM’s World Wide Web and experience what a full multimedia RISC System 6000 can offer. AIX applications being shown will include multimedia tools, systems management, network management, and the Common Desktop Environment. Also, get a sneak preview of what the IBM webmasters are working on.” I’m not sure, but Sun was probably showing off their just-launched Netra Internet Server, a solution that: “Gives PC, Macintosh and UNIX workstation users on LANs direct connection from their desktops and enables them to ‘surf’ the Internet using Mosaic software and other popular network browsing tools.” In short, our competitors seemed to be focused on access to the web or on what you can do with the web, not on positioning their hardware and software for actually building the web.
But there was one vendor present who had (almost) exactly what I was looking for. The company was SoftQuad, based out of Toronto, and their product of interest was HoTMetaL Pro, the very first commercial HTML editor. I had a great discussion with the company’s charming co-founder/CEO, Yuri Rubinsky, who showed openness to a potential partnership that would involve them porting to IRIX (our flavor of UNIX). He gave me a shrink-wrapped box of the software to evaluate back in California. We exchanged business cards and agreed to talk formally after the conference.
So, at least there was one commercial product for web development, and its maker, unlike creative tools titans, Macromedia and Adobe, would not freeze us out from the market by shunning our platform2. That said, HoTMetaL Pro was clearly a technically-oriented tool, strongly wed to its SGML roots, whereas the vision that had been brewing in my mind was of a WYSIWY3 web authoring tool, something for designers and business people, not programmers. And, based on what I saw at the conference, that was a market opportunity that was still wide open.
A Big Night
That evening, there was a dinner at the Museum of Science and Industry. According to the original program, attendance was limited to the first 600 to sign up (out of the total 1,200 attendees of the conference). Buses shuttled us South along the lake’s shore, a fifteen-minute drive to the Museum of Science and Industry. The program says that the exhibits were open for exploration, but I had none of that, heading straight to the
bar reception area with food and drink.
As luck would have it, the first person I happened to chat with was Lou Montulli4, whom I learned was a founding engineer at Mosaic Communications – one of the guys who just built the Netscape browser! I was thrilled. As I introduced myself, I handed Lou my business card (which still said “Indy Product Manager”), and his face lit up. “Indy Product Manager? We need to talk!” And talk we did: all through the reception and all through the dinner at a table way in the back of the banquet.
Lou shared that the Indy was in the center of the action at Mosaic Communications. It was the workstation that most of the team was using for software development, and it was also being used as the server for downloading the Netscape browser. (Doubtless the busiest web server on the Internet at that time!) One topic Lou wanted to discuss was server performance. Was there any way that I could help them scale up (as they were seeing crushing traffic)? At some point in the evening, I excused myself to make a phone call to the head of software for Indy, Ken Klingman, to get the ball rolling on a project to overcome whatever bottlenecks Mosaic was encountering with their Indys. I remember Ken saying, “Well, it is meant to be multi-user workstation, but we didn’t design it for hundreds of simultaneous users!”
After dinner, people started streaming out of the ballroom. As Lou and I stood to join the exodus, someone called out to Lou, “There you are!” And there was Marc Andreessen (easy to recognize from months of ever-increasing publicity) along with several others from the Mosaic contingent. Obviously, they were curious who had kidnapped Lou. After quick introductions, we boarded a bus for a trip back to the hotel. The seats were already full or almost full; I’m pretty sure Marc, Lou, and I all ended up standing for the ride. Along the way, we hatched a plan to head out to a Blues bar, where we would end up drinking and talking until 2:00 in the morning!
So, that was when and how I first met Marc Andreessen, kicking off a relationship that continues to this day. (Marc led Andreessen Horowitz’s seed investment in my current company, MediaSpike.)
Night of My Epiphany
Of course, after 20 years, I can’t recall the details of the many conversations I participated in late that night in the Blues bar. Generally, I got a much better sense of what our most important potential partner, Mosaic Communications, was focused on (browser and server software) and what they weren’t (authoring software).
What I do vividly and viscerally recall is that it was this evening when it all came together for me. I achieved a state of clarity, conviction, and passion about how the web market would unfold and how Silicon Graphics could ride this enormous wave. It’s really hard to describe such a feeling, but I can assure you it was truly exhilarating. I gained a practically religious conviction that the web was the next mass medium, the biggest wave of change in the technology landscape, and the biggest new market opportunity for the company I happened to be at.
With my Chicago epiphany complete, I felt a great sense of urgency to get back to Mountain View to get the plan rolling, keen for Silicon Graphics to be first-to-market with the picks and shovels for this new Gold Rush.
I was returning with great news of enormous opportunities for my division and for two others. Surely, I would be received with open arms…
[To be continued]
1″For downloading by individual, academic and research users”. The company ended up pulling in a lot of revenue from licensing to enterprises and OEMs before Microsoft responded with free Internet Explorer — bundled with Windows.
2See my last post for the back-story here
3This is an old acronym for “What You See Is What You Get” which came into common use in the 1980’s during the word processing revolution. From Wikipedia “a WYSIWYG editor is a system in which content (text and graphics) onscreen during editing appears in a form closely corresponding to its appearance when printed or displayed as a finished product, which might be a printed document, web page, or slide presentation.”