How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone
© 2018 Brian McCullough
Who’s ready for a little nostalgia? Brian McCullough, host of the Internet History podcast, here turns his research and many interviews in a compact history of how the tool of research scientists became the petri dish of 21st century life. This isn’t a technical history of APRANET slowly maturing; rather, it’s a popular history of how the Internet as most experienced it ‘happened’ — how it emerged, how it took fire, how different products and services saw it rapidly grow in new ways and transform society as a whole. McCullough uses a series of products and events to tell the story of the digital world, from the first graphical browser that made the network user-friendly, to the arrival of smartphones. If you were alive and aware in the nineties, and especially if you were growing up with the internet as many readers and quite a few tech billionaires these days did, it’s a nostalgia trip in addition to a fun history.
McCullough begins with the Mosaic browser, which later became Netscape, the first browser to bring a Mac-like graphic interface to the browsing experience. The unusual popularity of Mosaic hinted at the potential popularity of the internet, though the tech giants of the day were slow to catch on. Microsoft was entirely focused on Windows 95, and while it was thinking about an information highway, it imagined this future revolution would take place via television and cable connections, not low-bandwidth telephone lines. Once Bill Gates and Microsoft realized they’d made the wrong call, they used all their resources to make good the mistake — immediately releasing an OS that advertised its web-friendliness, and developing Internet Explorer and the MSN Network, as well as working with America Online. America Online was quick to grasp that the internet was fundamentally social, and that they could expand their influence enormously if they promoted chatting, message boards, and the like. (I wasn’t even an AOL subscriber, and I used and loved its AIM client.)
The astonishing success of Netscape and AOL meant that New York’s financial elite — and the whole of baby boomer and investment-curious America — saw it as an avenue for wealth, and the latter part of the nineties would be marked by a dot-come bubble that crashed in 2000. An astonishing array of companies sprang into being, promising to sell everything from dog food to cars online, and despite never showing the first sign of profit investors leapt on them. Some — a few, like Amazon — had staying power, but most were pipe dreams. While the resulting crash would dampen enthuasism in the early 2000s, McCullough holds that the bubble played an important role in driving the expansion of the internet’s infrastructure, paving the way for affordable broadband just as railway bubbles in England had paved it over in rails despite leaving many people destitute. In the meantime, more companies were developing that would capitalize on the web’s unique nature, like Google and facebook. All of the companies that McCullough chronicles bring something new to the table: eBay’s reputation mechanism, for instance — or allow users to revolutionize their own experience. Napster, for instance, gave people the strong taste of instant gratification, and the ability to remix content easily, and Facebook destroyed the wall between reality and the internet world.
The book culminates in the last chapter, amusing titled “One More Thing”, covering first the Blackberry, and then of course the iPhone. This chapter is strangely short, but perhaps that owes to the smartphone being a device still in the process of changing everything. Smartphone sales are just now reaching their estimated peak, and while a book will certainly be written in the future on how ubiquitous mobile computing has transformed 21st century society, perhaps we’re not outside the transformation enough to look back at it.
I for one thoroughly enjoyed How the Internet Happened, in part for nostalgia. I can remember the dot-com bubble commercials, the banner ads, how revolutionary Firefox’s tabbed browsing was, how spectacularly fun AIM was, etc, and it’s nice to see all of this laid out in a history. Despite experiencing it first-hand, I also learned quite a bit, like the origins of Hotmail. (I still type “hotmail.com” when I want to login to Microsoft services, and didn’t realize Hotmail began as an independent project before Microsoft bought them to get into the web mail area.)
The One Device: A Secret History of the iPhone, Brian Merchant