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

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CERN was a European research center, and Berners-Lee and his colleague Robert Cailliau had apparently just visited HUT to speak about their work. (In his book, Berners-Lee only mentions Cailliau visiting HUT during this period, but the Erwise group say they positively remember Berners-Lee speaking.) Finland also was a frontier of information technology at the time: the Finnish university network FUNET had been established in 1984, and chatting protocol IRC, Linus Torvalds’ Linux, and SMS text messaging had all been created there.

Whoever was the conduit, Berners-Lee’s request attracted the attention of the Finns’ instructor, Ari Lemmke, who suggested the group start to work on it or “something Linux-related.” They chose the browser.

As Kim Nyberg explains: “Ours was a totally unknown field. But when we heard of the idea of the browser, we realized that it could be a big thing. We were amazed when we thought what all this could lead to. It became a truly interesting experience.”

The four Finns completed their browser by April 1992: only a couple thousand lines of code were needed, so the work was feasible. They demonstrated it to their professor, Martti Mäntylä, showing how Erwise could surf Web pages—there were just 12 in the world at the time, according to Nyberg, Sydänmaanlakka, and Rantanen. The students got a top grade from their professor.

Erwise Screen Shot The men are still very proud of Erwise. Despite being such an early take on the idea of the graphical browser, it already had interesting and advanced applications. You could click the highlighted hypertext link with your mouse, and a new page was opened! Erwise could also search for text on a Web page. The browser even could load several different pages simultaneously, which Mosaic still could not do a year later.

Erwise even seemed to sow some seeds of Google. If Erwise couldn’t find a search word on one page, it would start to look for the term on other Web pages. Such a function would become the basis of crawler or spider programs that today’s search engines rely on.

Erwise was soon followed by other browsers, such as ViolaWWW and Midas. Andreessen’s team at NCSA created Mosaic independently, but version 1.0 wasn’t released until about year later, in early 1993.

“At first they did a lot of things quite wrong with Mosaic. There were problems we had already solved,” Nyberg laughs (You can find a 1993 e-mail from Nyberg to Marc Andreessen with some advice regarding Mosaic here.) In any case, Mosaic brought the World Wide Web to the general public. A year after that, Clark and Andreessen incorporated Mosaic Communications, soon to be known as Netscape—and the rest, as they say, is history.

Why didn’t Erwise become a household name? Why aren’t the Finns billionaires or mega-millionaires, like Clark and Andreessen?

The three engineers I met with laugh and remember those times with nostalgia. The Finns knew what they had accomplished and considered their options. But for a variety of reasons, they say, Erwise could not have achieved commercialization.

They point out one decisive issue: Finland in April 1992 was in a horrible recession. The country was almost bankrupt. No corporate, venture, or government money was available for startups, and there were no angel investors in Finland at the time. Nobody even knew the concept.

Teemu Rantanen reminisces about those years so long ago. “We could not have created a business around Erwise in Finland then. The only way we could have made money would have been to … Next Page »

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