Politics and Interoperability Standards

But the most interesting aspect is how it completely changed overnight the concept of “online services”. Mosaic’s strength was that it did not only support Tim’s HTTP/HTML protocol, but it also allowed a lot of other protocols: FTP for directly transferring files, Gopher (an outdated predecessor of the WWW), Usenet News (a predecessor of the web-based forums), and, indirectly, Web-based email. In fact, the notion that the browser could become a front-end for remote applications was pretty much born thanks to the graphical aspect of Mosaic and the way that HTML pages could also lead to interesting graphical design (in spite of much discussion about it later on). And, of course, because anyone could write a Web-compatible browser or server, it meant that any type of client-server application could be easily “ported” to use the open protocol of the Web instead.

Online services tried, for a while, to push their own client-server solutions, based on their own protocols, and improve them. Microsoft, in 1995, was the first to capitulate: they launched Windows 95 in that year, and in September, they announced that MSN would work via the Web — instead of using a proprietary browser and a proprietary protocol to connect to Microsoft’s online services. This obviously meant that they could offer that content to non-Microsoft users as well — the Web works for any device, no matter what operating system you use, or where you’re physically located, or what Internet Service Provider you use to connect to the Internet. AOL quickly switched over; Compuserve was later bought by AOL; and, of course, AOL bought Andreessen’s own company (Netscape) as well as merging with Time Warner (which had all that wonderful content).

The interesting aspect, however, is not just how the Big Content companies in the online digital world suddenly all competed using the same technologies (or rather, using the same Internet protocols, instead of using their own closed and proprietary systems), but rather how, in a little more than a decade, millions of content-producing companies popped up literally from nowhere, and how billions of single individuals started to produce digital content of their own — these days, on forums, blogs, and social sites (including the ubiquitous YouTube or Flickr). It allowed start-ups like Yahoo and Google to virtually overnight become industry giants, competing at the same level as the content-producing giants (e.g. Disney and AOL/Time Warner), and in some cases, beating them — while still allowing billions of people to create and display content everywhere (a Google employee claimed that Google cached in memory about 6 billion webpages in early 2007; he had no clue about how many billions of pages were cached in hard disks).

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