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Thanks, Mozilla
by Steve Silberman

12:05 p.m. Nov. 23, 1998 PST
Like many of you, I remember the first time I saw the World Wide Web. It was back in 1994, and I was running one of the first releases of Netscape on a Mac Classic II, the future trickling into the present at 2400 bits per second.

Still -- even with images that wouldn't load, and crude gray pages that took five minutes to flicker into view -- I had the uncanny feeling that I was seeing something that was going to have an enormous impact on the world.

I was working on a book called Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads with David Shenk. My trusty Mac, which had hardly ever crashed before, was too small and slow to really make use of the Web. Every time I launched the browser, I knew I had about 10 minutes in wonderland, at most, before my computer bombed.

But the Web's elemental elegance -- the window that was a world-within-a-world, and the links, an obviously potent magic -- was so powerful, it was impossible to think about information, or computing, or writing itself, the same way as you had, after you'd seen the Web even once.

Just glimpsing it profoundly influenced the shape of the book we were writing, which became an extensively cross-linked hypertext document, only on paper.

As a long-time fan of the Beat writers, I knew that what I was seeing in my Netscape window had everything it needed to spark a publishing revolution on the scale of insurgent small presses like City Lights -- a way for the best minds of my generation to reach readers directly, to talk to one another intelligently, and cut through the smoke screen of glitz emanating from the media.

And best of all, the geek hurdles involved in getting online ensured that the Web couldn't be typecast as the latest warmed-over '60s rebellion. It would take a while for the professional cynics to draw a bead on this, I knew, and I hoped the kids would run with it.

They did, and I joined them.
I remember sitting at my much larger, faster Mac at HotWired headquarters a year or so later, reflecting on how perfect a word "Netscape" was.

Even after hearing a gazillion contrived cyber-ific monikers, there's still poetry and audacity in that name -- an insistence that the Web wasn't merely a display, a tool, an application, an e-anything, but a place -- a newly discovered, unmapped infinitude.

If it sounded a little like a desert or a location on a Star Trek planet, it was simply because you hadn't built a home (page) there yet. The word "Netscape" announced that the frontier was open for exploration and habitation.

I know Jim Barksdale didn't invent the Web and its architectural underpinnings. I know that Tim Berners-Lee, Jon Postel, Vint Cerf, and others did ... and didn't become millionaires in the process. And I know that the original geniuses of hypertext, visionaries like Ted Nelson and Vannevar Bush, articulated many of the Web's essential concepts a long time before Mosaic was a gleam in anybody's eye.

As I write this, there's no press release or spin doctoring or informed reportage or punditry to tell me what the possible sale of Netscape to America Online means. But frankly, the time when Netscape meant more to me than just a business, brilliantly or ineptly run, is pretty much over.

But for my generation -- a fraternity of guiltless pirates who gave out copies of the software to our friends as if sharing it increased its value -- getting your hands on Netscape was like inheriting your own FM radio station, or a printing press in your basement, or an electric guitar and an amp loud enough to turn the world on its ear, like...

Like nothing there had ever been in history.

Thanks, Mozilla.

Related Wired Links:

Two Online Pioneers
23.Nov.98

AOL, Netscape May Merge
22.Nov.98

AOL, Netscape Getting Cozy
18.Nov.98

Netscape Shepherds Mozilla to the Masses
23.Feb.98.



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