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30 April 2013, 13:04

The world-changing libwww is 20 years old today

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On 30 April 1993, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau were given official permission by CERN in Geneva to distribute the libwww library free of charge, "to create a server or a browser, to give it away or sell it, without any royalty or other constraint. Whew!" (Tim Berners-Lee in Weaving the Web).

The architects of this particular World Wide Web (WWW) anniversary deserve recognition even today, though the commercialisation of the internet was certainly not their objective. Complex negotiations between the universities involved were required before the go-ahead for a general release could be given – there was no commercial involvement at that time.

WWW browser Mosaic, which had been made available to download from the Center for Super Computing at the University of Illinois in January 1993, only included libwww because CERN got hold of Mosaic in return and was able to distribute it via The first academic mention of Mosaic (PostScript file) makes CERN's involvement clear; the official announcement in Marc Andreessen's newsgroup, by contrast, is somewhat vague on this point.

According to Cailliau, Berners-Lee was indignant at Mosaic's ability to display image files – Cailliau remembers disagreeing with this anti-multimedia attitude. What is undisputed is that on 15 May 1993, Berners-Lee, on newsgroups such as www-talk, gave a laudatory review of Pei Wei's ViolaWWW, which he considered exemplary. The ex-HyperCard-programmer is the inventor of the ubiquitous bookmarks and developed the indispensable back and forward buttons. CERN's libwww agreement also enabled Viola to be made freely available for download.

Pei Wei was asked to take on the task of developing the browser which would change the world for normal PC users, but instead chose to join publisher O'Reilly as a programmer. In 1993, O'Reilly started to produce and sell HTML-based electronic books. According to Robert Cailliau, it was Pei Wei's demonstration of his pioneering ideas for mini in-browser applications to a delegation from Sun Microsystems that prompted Sun to start developing Java.

Mosaic (PostScript file) is the browser which launched the commercialisation of the world wide web and thus the internet. Victory went to Marc Andreessen's group because they found a very wealthy investor in the shape of Jim Clarke. That the departure of Andreesen, Bina and others from the University of Illinois to found Netscape coincided with the transfer of all the software code to the university's in-house spin-off Spyglass "by default", is another chapter. Microsoft subsequently bought up all of Spyglass's IP, and used it to launch the browser wars.

(Detlef Borchers / fab)


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