Remembering the pre-Netscape browsers

Young ones, gather round, and let Ole Grampa Doctorow tell you about the glory days, before the creation and deprecation of the <blink> tag, when tables were still a glimmer in a data-structure's eye, when a DOM advertised in the back pages of your weekly freesheet and CSS was a controversial DVD-scrambling system.

In those heroic days, dinosaurs still walked the Earth, the doomed cousins and hopeful monsters that forked off from WorldWideWeb: forgotten relics of a nobler age with names like NCSA Mosaic, Erwise, ViolaWWW, Midas, Samba and Cello! These fossils are excavated and lovingly cataloged in Matthew Lasar's 2011 article, revived for Memorial Day weekend content-shoveling by Ars Technica (who note, dryly, that "This story originally ran on Oct 11, 2011, and it appears unchanged below").

ViolaWWW was released in April of 1992. Developer Pei-Yuan Wei wrote it at the University of California at Berkeley via his UNIX-based Viola programming/scripting language. No, Pei Wei didn't play the viola, "it just happened to make a snappy abbreviation" of Visually Interactive Object-oriented Language and Application, write James Gillies and Robert Cailliau in their history of the World Wide Web.

Wei appears to have gotten his inspiration from the early Mac program HyperCard, which allowed users to build matrices of formatted hyper-linked documents. "HyperCard was very compelling back then, you know graphically, this hyperlink thing," he later recalled. But the program was "not very global and it only worked on Mac. And I didn't even have a Mac."

But he did have access to UNIX X-terminals at UC Berkeley's Experimental Computing Facility. "I got a HyperCard manual and looked at it and just basically took the concepts and implemented them in X-windows." Except, most impressively, he created them via his Viola language.

One of the most significant and innovative features of ViolaWWW was that it allowed a developer to embed scripts and "applets" in the browser page. This anticipated the huge wave of Java-based applet features that appeared on websites in the later 1990s.

Before Netscape: The forgotten Web browsers of the early 1990s [Matthew Lasar/Ars Technica]