The Greatest Internet Pioneers You Never Heard Of: The Story of Erwise and Four Finns Who Showed the Way to the Web Browser

3/3/09

Three quiet and unknown Finnish engineers in their late thirties, Kim Nyberg, Kari Sydänmaanlakka, and Teemu Rantanen, have spent their working careers at the engineering software company Tekla in Finland. Their clients have used the software they created to model several well-known buildings, including Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, New York’s Hearst Tower, the famous ‘Bird’s Nest’ that is Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, and the world’s tallest building, Burj Dubai.

But if matters had turned out a little differently, these men—and a former colleague named Kati Suominen (now Kati Borgers) who could not be present at the interview—might have become known as the Fathers and Mother of the World Wide Web browser.

[Editor's note: This article is our first from Juha-Pekka Tikka, Xconomy's new Fellow from Stanford University's Innovation Journalism program. "JP," a reporter at Ilta-Sanomat, a major national newspaper in Finland, will be based in our Xconomy San Diego offices.]

According to the trio, whom I met earlier this year in Finland, the Internet’s rise and emergence as a daily working tool might have happened a year earlier than it did had their group been able to complete their project.

The Erwise CreatorsThe four Finns developed a graphical, point-and-click Internet browser a year before the pioneering Mosaic browser on which Netscape Communications was based: the historical Netscape IPO in August 1995 is widely credited with starting the Internet boom.

“Our 1991 X Window system browser, ‘Erwise,’ showed that a net browser was possible. We were ahead of the times. The next step, to commercialize it, did not happen,” Kim Nyberg says.

Aside from some local media, the Finns have never before been interviewed about this remarkable story. But Erwise has an important place in the Internet’s birth history. And its fate offers a case study of what happens when invention and innovation are not accompanied by funding, talent infusion, and a strong venture capital market or angel investor presence—all ingredients that Silicon Valley (where Mosaic was funded and developed) takes for granted.

In the U.S., commercialization of the browser, now so much a part of our everyday lives, began in 1994, after Marc Andreessen left the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, where he and Eric Bina had developed the Mosaic browser the previous year. Andreessen had moved to California following his December 1993 graduation and teamed up with Silicon Graphics founder Jim Clark, backed by venture capital powerhouse Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, to form Mosaic Communications, later renamed Netscape Communications. Europe was quickly left out in the cold.

But for a few key factors, it didn’t have to be that way. In 1991, Nyberg, Sydänmaanlakka, Rantanen, and Suominen were young IT undergraduate students at HUT, Helsinki University of Technology. The campus is actually located in Espoo, just a few miles from Helsinki and only half a mile away from the headquarters of Nokia Corporation. At that time, Nokia was not internationally known.

The four were about half-way through their studies when they met that September at a HUT course on designing and coding software.

In Switzerland, meanwhile, Tim Berners-Lee had just laid the groundwork for the World Wide Web at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). He thought the Web would be a useful tool for researchers and others but was frustrated at its pace of growth, which he partly attributed to the lack of a point-and-click browser. As he notes in his 1999 book Weaving the Web, “We were so busy trying to keep the Web going that there was no way we could develop browsers ourselves, so we energetically suggested to everyone everywhere that the creation of browsers would make useful projects for software students at universities.”

How did this project end up in Finland? It was largely because … Next Page »

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