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Andreessen assesses browser prospects

By , Network World
April 07, 2003 12:05 AM ET

Network World - Ten years ago this month, a team of programmers at the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications loaded a program on an FTP server that could be accessed by almost anyone on the Internet. Mosaic was the culmination of work launched about six months earlier by NCSA researchers Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina. Within a year, there were millions of Mosaic users worldwide. Andreessen, the quintessential Internet programmer, is the board chairman of Opsware, formerly Loudcloud, a Sunnyvale, Calif., vendor of data center management software. He talked recently about the future, present and past of the Web browser with Network World Senior Editor John Cox.

What have been the main results of the invention of the Web browser?

The big result is that the browser makes it possible to create Web sites. In the early months, there was very little content to actually view. It wasn't like you had Time magazine online. But it also made it very easy for people to view what was there. We went to 10,000 Mosaic users quickly, and to 100,000 in about three or four months. And the number of Web sites [available to be viewed] tracked the same way. It was the network effect, a snowballing. And it still is [continuing]. The browser catalyzed all that in the first place.

OK, so the future of the Web browser is what?

After 10 years, it's still a user sitting in front of a Web browser viewing HTML services. It's not [about] XML, Java applets, the semantic Web. It's HTML and some JavaScript. The difference is that now it's 500 million people doing this, with something like 3 trillion or so HTML pages.

It's the same dynamic as TV. TV was invented in 1950. Today, we have 500 channels instead of three. But it's the same model, exactly as it was 50 years ago. Once these things get started, it's hard to slow them down.

What about the idea of the semantic Web, new tags that will let applications and computers automatically interact?

The semantic Web [means you have to] retag everything that's out there [in HTML content]. Uhmm, no. I don't think so. But if the browser isn't changing, the [original] architectural changes are still relevant.

How?

Before the browser, if a business had a software application, then that's what it would give to its employees, period. They never even conceived of exposing their applications to anyone else.

With the browser, all this changed. Amazon and eBay today have millions and millions of people using Amazon and eBay applications via the Web. Consumers log on to their PC and typically now are running applications on someone else's computer.

[So] you can get [Web] services, and transactions, and all this stuff. EBay has thousands of servers running very complex applications in a complex infrastructure to make this possible. But the users just see Web pages.

How will wireless technologies affect this model?

Wi-Fi [wireless LANs based on the IEEE 802.11 standard] will be the dominant form of the 'wireless Internet.'

Five years ago, my PC was linked to the Internet via a dial-up connection. I'd dial up my provider, log on, use my computer online for a while, then log off. That takes a lot of effort.

With Wi-Fi, on the other hand, as the way to access DSL or cable modems, every computer is on the network all the time. Your usage pattern changes at once: you use your computer on the network intermittently, dozens of times a day. You're using it therefore more often in more day-to-day activities. Wi-Fi makes this all much easier.

What about the wireless Internet based on cellular data services?

Cell phone data is a complete market failure in the U.S. because the user experience is deeply inferior to what you do with a browser on the PC or even a handheld. Cell phone browsers based on [Wireless Application Protocol] just make you want to cry.

You're not a fan of converged devices?

There will be multiple devices [for each user], and wireless networking will enable that kind of diversity.

When I first went to a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, they'd give you a spork - something that was half-spoon and half-fork. And I thought, 'why don't we have this at home?' And here's why: because what you actually want is to have a good fork and a good spoon. And the spork is neither.

The multipurpose device will always fail.

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