Book Review: How the Internet Happened

Cover of "How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone" by Brian McCullough.

How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone (2018: Liveright) is the result of Brian McCullough’s researching and hosting the Internet History Podcast for the last few years.

The book’s subtitle tells you a little bit of what the book does and doesn’t cover: This is not about building the network and connecting the academics in the 1960s and 1970s. It is not a social history of the Internet, nor does it cover much of the open-source movement that underlies so much of what the internet is today.

What you will get in this book is a clear sense of how a military/academic network of mainframe computers and terminals familiar to very few became an essential part of most people’s lives. The narrative is often informed by the people at the center of the transformation. Among the topics covered:

  • The transition from proprietary commercial online services to the open World Wide Web
  • The browser wars of the 1990s
  • How the mainstream media botched online news in the early days
  • Amazon, eBay and the birth of online commerce
  • How we began to think of the internet as the “New Economy,” immune from business cycles, and how that bubble burst
  • The origins of online search
  • The birth of digital music and the copyright wars that ensued
  • The rise of blogging and social media after the bubble burst
  • A brief history of how Apple went from near-bankruptcy to being the wealthiest corporation on Earth

McCullough also tells us how Google managed to survive the dot-bomb crash of 2000-01 to become one of today’s dominant companies. This happened almost by accident.

The new version of AdWords had advertisers bid against competitors’ ads, but Google’s system was not simply pay-for-placement. Ever enamoured with math and the power of algorithms, Google ingtroduced an important new ranking factor for the ads it called a “Quality Score.” In essence, Google’s system took into account how often that ad was actually clicked on, in addition to how much an advertiser was willing to pay per click. … Over time, more money would come in from a 5-cent ad that was clicked on 25 times—than from a dollar ad that was only clicked on once.

Brian McCullough, How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone p.230

What this means is that Google discovered the importance of learning everything about its users (meaning: you and I), because they could make money from that knowledge. To fully understand, you should check out Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. I’m reading that now, and will probably have a lot to say about it when I finish. Right now, I can tell you it succeeds in altering one’s perception of what’s wrong with Big Tech.

McCullough is more interested in the businesses that built the web, you’ll get a lot of stock prices, investment numbers, and net worth of the founders. If you liked the National Geographic Channel series, “Valley of the Boom,” you will enjoy the more detailed stories. All the main subplots get at least a mention. If the docudrama elements turned you off, you’ll appreciate the research and storytelling that McCullough delivers.

What scares me most about this book is that, for better or worse, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg comes off the best of all the book’s founders, as the person who (accidentally) really had the purest vision. Once he figured that out, he refused to sell out. That worked out, didn’t it?

I’ve read a lot about the history of the internet, and How the Internet Happened is one of the better ones. I started listening to McCullough’s podcast, which continues on, as a result of this book, and learned a bit from both the source interviews and the collected text. You likely will too.

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Ten Years On: Mozilla, Firefox and the Developer Edition

English: This is a icon for Firefox Web Browser.
Firefox Web Browser. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A decade ago, the Mozilla project was in something of a crisis. The once-dominant browser (a direct descendant of Mosaic, the first graphical browser) had long ago been surpassed in usage by Microsoft Internet Explorer, in part the result of Microsoft’s leveraging its dominant operating system to recapture the Internet.

Mozilla was born when Netscape Communicator‘s code opened up to the global developer community, the first piece of “household name” software to go from proprietary to open source code. But the simple browser had become a full-blown suite of communication tools — Email, chat, even a web development environment. All of these tools loaded at once, clogging up computer memory (slowing down computers) and chewing up dial-up bandwidth (slowing down the web). Mozilla needed a strategy to keep the project from spiraling into oblivion.

Kudos to the person who had the idea to split up all the tools, and allow people to run just what they wanted. Thus, Firefox was born! This was the first of the lean browsers, lightning fast for its time, both for loading pages and simply displaying on the screen. Firefox also introduced the idea of modular extensions, allowing independent developers to add functionality to the basic browser engine provided by Mozilla.

Mozilla’s email client became Thunderbird, and won many fans. The web coding tool, Composer, spun off into a series of different applications, none of which ever became popular. Because the code was still open source, even the suite continued under the SeaMonkey banner. All this code runs on practically every operating system known to humans and bots, including the Firefox OS for mobile devices.

Firefox reignited the browser wars, and eventually eclipsed Internet Explorer by out-innovating Microsoft. As a result, Google got into the browser business with Chrome. These days, Chrome is at the top of the browser pile, with Firefox, Apple’s Safari and IE  trailing. As with many things Google, Chrome is a proprietary browser running atop open source code, called Chromium.

Today, the Firefox team released the Firefox Developer Edition, a special browser with built-in tools for both the mobile OS and ordinary web designers and developers. I’ve got this downloaded, and hope to learn more about it in the coming days (if you’ve read through all my NaBloPoMo posts this month, you’ll know that I’ve got a lot of learning ahead of me).

Meanwhile, I continue to use Firefox as my primary browser, in part because of its open character, in part out of habit. Happy Birthday Firefox!

Celebrate Aaron Swartz Day

November 8 should have been Aaron Swartz‘s 28th birthday. But for an overzealous prosecutor, Swartz would likely still be innovating, still be rousing the rabble, still be sharing information that the rest of us need.

English: Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event.
Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I didn’t know much about Swartz the human being while he was alive, but what I’ve learned about him since he died almost two years ago has been quite the inspiration. Go read his Wikipedia page, if you don’t know of his legacy. Then go visit Reddit, another bit of code he helped with.

At the bottom of this page, you’ll see another silent homage to Aaron Swartz: the Creative Commons license under which I share this blog’s conten.

By the time you read this, it’s likely too late to take part in the Swartz Day hackathon happening in several cities around the globe. I’ve already missed the showing of the Swartz documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. But you don’t need to participate in an official event to honor Aaron Swartz. You just need to take some steps in his memory. Share some important information with someone who needs it, be it on your own blog (Today would be a good day to start a blog, by the way), Reddit, on your favorite social media site — or live and in person.

Information in the right hands is powerful , and Aaron Swartz knew that today’s powerful people hold information that keeps the less powerful in their place. So go empower someone today.

A History of OS/2 from Ars Technica

So after a weekend of fictional travel in time and space, it’s time for me to get back to the real world. Besides the deadlines I’m trying to meet (and/or update), there’s always interesting stuff that catches my eye.

The OS/2 Warp WorkPlaceShell desktop, from os2museum.com, by way of Ars Technica
The OS/2 Warp WorkPlaceShell desktop, from os2museum.com, by way of Ars Technica

Tonight I’m directing your attention to a new, semi-short (five web pages) history piece called Half an operating system: The triumph and tragedy of OS/2 by Jeremy Reimer at Ars Technica.

This is a story I wish I’d written. This IBM product was the first “alternative” operating system I ever used. I started typing first “non-Microsoft” OS, but knew immediately that the folks who were around back then (and those who read Reimer’s story) would know that’s not correct. That was true by the time I got around to using it (Warp 4 in 1996, when I was a technology reporter for Isthmus Weekly in Madison, WI), but its origins go back much deeper.

I’ve got a longer story to tell, but I’m afraid I don’t have time to tell it now. I will say that I still have my OS/2 Warp 4 box sitting in my office. Every time I install the VirtualBox virtual machine system, I always note that VB supports OS/2 VMs. Someday I’m going to test that assumption.

Did you run any version of OS/2? I’d love to hear your stories! Feel free to comment on the Ars story too.