Memoirs From the Browser Wars
"The original Internet Explorer team was just five or six
people. By the time Silverberg and others decided to rewrite
the browser almost completely for version 3.0, released in
1996, the team had grown to 100. By 1999, it was more than
It's fun reading stories like this from the perspective of
a witness. Instead of reading to find out what happened,
I read it to find out if the author got it right. I was
My weblog will remain focused on version control and .NET,
but in conjunction with the tenth
anniversary of Mosaic, please indulge me a brief trip down
Life in the browser wars was a unique time period for me in
my career. Spyglass was sort of like my first real
job. When I joined the company in May 1992 the business
was all about scientific data analysis tools. We had a
little over $3M from Greylock and Venrock. It was a fun
company, but data plotting isn't an explosive growth
market. By 1994, everybody was starting to realize
Management made the decision to transition our business
completely and pursue the market for web browsers. Tim
Krauskopf, the founder and head of development, asked me to
write a web browser. I started work on Spyglass Mosaic
on April 5th, 1994. The demo for our first prospective
customer was already on the calendar in May.
I ended up as the Project Lead for the browser team.
Yes, we licensed the technology and trademarks from NCSA (at the University
of Illinois), but we never used any of the code. We
wrote our browser implementations completely from scratch, on
Windows, MacOS, and Unix.
We were not the first Mosaic licensee, but we were the
last. Prior to us, a company called Spry took the Mosaic
code and tried to sell "Internet in a Box". People still
seem to get Spry and Spyglass confused because of the similar
Netscape didn't even exist yet, but things happened
fast. Just a few weeks after I started coding, Jim Clark
rode into town and gathered a select group of programmers from
NCSA. Mosaic Communications Corporation was born.
It was interesting to note that certain people on the NCSA
browser team were not invited to the special meeting. I
can still remember hearing about how ticked off they were to
be excluded. Champaign-Urbana is a very small town.
Spyglass had the legal right to the "Mosaic"
trademark. A few tantrums and lots of lawyering later,
MCC changed its name to Netscape.
We thought we had a nice head start on Netscape. We
had a really top-notch team and we moved the rest of our
developers over to browser work quickly. We were ready
to compete with anybody. But Jim Clark was, after all,
Jim Clark. His SGI-ness knew how to work the advantages
of being in Silicon Valley. He provided his young
company with lots of press coverage and very deep
We decided to approach this market with an OEM business
model. Instead of selling a browser to end users
we developed core technology and sold it to corporations
who in turn provided it to their end users. We
considered ourselves to be the arms dealer for the browser
wars. Over 120 companies licensed Spyglass Mosaic so
they could bundle it into their product. Our stuff ended
up in books, operating systems, ATM machines, set-top boxes,
help systems, and kiosks. It was an extremely profitable
business. The company grew fast and ours was one of the
first Internet IPOs.
Along the way, we got involved in the standards
process. In fact, I became the chair of the IETF HTML Working Group for
the standardization of HTML
2.0. I learned a lot through this experience.
In May 1994 I went to the first WWW
conference in Geneva, Tim Berners-Lee took me aside and
shared his plans for a World-Wide Web Consortium. It
didn't take too long for the W3C to become the venue for HTML
standards discussions. Eventually this was A Good
Thing. Both Netscape and Microsoft became active
participants in the W3C HTML Working Group. Any group
which didn't have their involvement was doomed to
For much of 1994, it seemed like we were ahead of
Netscape. Shortly after we released our 2.0 version, I
remember one of the Netscape developers griping about how
their schedule had been moved up by six months. We
smiled because we knew we were the reason. They had not
been taking us seriously and they were being forced to do
But Netscape was running at a much faster pace. They
got ahead of us on features and they began to give their
browser away at no cost to end users. This made Netscape
the standard by which all other browsers were judged. If
our browser didn't render something exactly like Netscape, it
was considered a bug. I hated fixing our browser to make
it bug-compatible with Netscape even though we had already
coded it to "the standard". Life's not fair
We won the Microsoft deal. I suppose only the higher
echelons of Spyglass management really know the gory details
of this negotiation. I was asked to be the primary
technical contact for Microsoft and their effort to integrate
our browser into Windows 95. I went to Redmond and
worked there for a couple of weeks as part of the "Chicago"
team. It was fun, but weird. They gave me my own
office. At dinner time, everyone went to the cafeteria
for food and then went back to work. On my first night,
I went back to my hotel at 11:30pm. I was one of the
first to leave.
Internet Explorer 2.0 was basically Spyglass Mosaic with
not too many changes. IE 3.0 was a major upgrade, but
still largely based on our code. IE 4.0 was closer to a
rewrite, but our code was still lingering around -- we could
tell by the presence of certain esoteric bugs that were
specific to our layout engine.
Licensing our browser was a huge win for Spyglass.
And it was a huge loss. We got a loud wake-up call when
we tried to schedule our second conference for our
OEM browser customers. Our customers told us they
weren't coming because Microsoft was beating them up.
The message became clear: We sold our browser technology
to 120 companies, but one of them slaughtered the other
The time between IE 3 and IE 4 was a defining period for
Spyglass. It was clear that the browser war had become a
two-player race. Even with our IPO stash, we didn't have
the funding to keep up with Netscape. What was
interesting was the day we learned that Netscape didn't have
the funding to keep up with Microsoft.
For the development of IE 4.0, a new Program Manager
appeared. His name was Scott Isaacs and I started seeing
him at the HTML standards group meetings. At one of
those meetings we sat down for a talk which was a major
turning point for me and for Spyglass. Scott told me
that the IE team had over 1,000 people.
I was stunned. That was 50 times the size of the
Spyglass browser team. It was almost as many people as
Netscape had in their whole company. I could have
written the rest of the history of web browsers on that day --
no other outcomes were possible.
After that day, it seemed like Spyglass declined
fast. The company turned its focus on the non-PC browser
market. Things shuffled around. I left Spyglass in
January of 1997 and founded my own company. I
left with no regrets and no bitterness. Spyglass was an
incredible learning experience for me.
Looking back on the browser wars, Tim Krauskopf remarked
that we had beaten everybody who didn't outspend us by a
factor of five.