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The Smartest Guys in the Room

By Carl Weiss
The Internet has without a doubt been one of the most important inventions ever created. When it comes to revolutionizing the way in which we perceive and operate in the world, it has created a major paradigm shift in all things human.  And like many inventions, the web was the result of the labor of many talented people.  Some of those people wound up being relegated to footnote status while others went on to become Internet icons.

And So it Begins

The Internet was actually an outgrowth of the ARPANET, which was a cold war project designed to safeguard government communications in case of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.  Developed in the sixties and seventies, the ARPANET program led to the development of a number of internet protocols such as TCP/IP, that formed the foundation for the internet that we all use today.

The only problem was that back in the sixties and through much of the seventies, the only people who had access to computers were governments, fortune 500 companies and universities.  Then in 1976 a couple of guys named Steve invented and began selling one of the first personal computers, called the Apple.  The problem back then was that these fledgling computers were not very powerful and they were expensive.  The first Apples sold for $666.66.  This was at a time when many compact cars sold for a couple of thousand dollars.

Steve and Bill - Best Buddies?

Add to this the fact that their computer didn’t do a lot and it was obvious that they would have to woo a number of software developers.  Some of these included Fred Gibbons, Mitch Kapor and Bill Gates.  While people think of Microsoft as being a mortal enemy of Apple, back then the two we
Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at the fifth D: All ...
Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at the fifth D: All Things Digital conference (D5) in 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
re kissing cousins.  It wasn’t until a few years later with the advent of the IBM PC that the lines were drawn in the sand. Then, Apple and Microsoft wound up on opposing camps.  In the early days not only did every Apple computer come equipped with Gate’s version of Basic, but in a 1983 interview Bill also stated that he expected to generate half of Microsoft’s revenues in 1984 from Macintosh software.

While many people don’t instantly recall who Fred Gibbons and Mitch Kapor were back then, their contributions kept Apple’s train on the tracks during the early half of the '80s.  Fred’s firm, Software Publishing Company, created a number of software products, chief among them being Harvard Graphics, which brought on-screen graphics abilities to early versions of the Apple. 

First Killer App

Mitch Kapor developer of Lotus 1-2-3 was one of the rock stars of software development in the early days of personal computing.  In fact Lotus 1-2-3 became one of computing’s first killer apps which would eventually contribute to the popularity of Apple’s nemesis, the IBM PC.  That doesn’t mean that there weren’t other software developers on the hunt for other killer apps.  In fact, Lotus 1-2-3 was an offshoot of another popular spreadsheet program called Visicalc. 

1-2-3 boingmash... Mark Frauenfelder, Xeni Jar...
1-2-3 boingmash... Mark Frauenfelder, Xeni Jardin, Cory Doctorow and Mitch Kapor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Of course, competition among software developers was not the only place where the microcomputer war was heating up.  Back then there were a number of companies trying to muscle in on the hardware game as well.  Chief among them was Tandy Radio Shack whose TRS-80 was a popular brand at the time.   (Although it didn’t help that denigrators of the brand used to refer to it as the Trash Eighty.)  The Commodore 64 was another successful brand, selling some 17 million units in the US. 

IBM Gets Down to Business

This is when the titan of computer manufacturing decided to get into the game with a micro of its own.  By 1980 more than 50 microcomputer systems were on the market.  This is when IBM decided it was time to join the fray.  Before 1981, IBM was the dominant player when it came to mainframe
Apple I at the Smithsonian Museum
Apple I at the Smithsonian Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 computers.  They had never even considered creating a microcomputer.  In fact, so sudden was their entry into this burgeoning market that they did something unprecedented.  Instead of taking the time to create an entirely proprietary product, they instead cobbled together the IBM PC with off-the-shelf technology.  (They didn’t even have an operating system for a PC, which opened the door for Bill Gates whose MS-DOS system quickly became the defacto operating system for the IBM PC along with an eventual swarm of clones.)

So many competitors began to pile on that even those who had enjoyed hegemony during the early going (such as Apple) began to feel the heat.  By 1982, the marketplace had reached
Apple Lisa with a ProFile hard drive stacked o...
Apple Lisa with a ProFile hard drive stacked on top of it. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 critical mass and a shakeout was inevitable.  Not wanting to wind up kicked to the curb, Steve Jobs at Apple decided it was time to reinvent itself by once again looking into the crystal ball to determine where personal computing was headed.  So taking $50 million of the company’s money, Steve assembled a team of the best and brightest at Apple and created what he thought would be the next leap forward in personal computing technology.  Called Lisa, the computer was released in January of 1984 priced between $3,495 and $5,495Even though the system was well ahead of its time, commercially its launch was hailed as a failure, one that would ultimately cost Jobs his job. (The release of the Macintosh the following year, which was both faster and cheaper saved Apple from joining the technological scrap heap wherein many of its competitors wound up.)

Steve Jobs' Other Job

This failure did not deter Jobs, who, along with several other ousted Apple employees, went onto start NeXT Computer, Inc. in 1995.  While NeXT only sold around 50,000 units and was ultimately absorbed by Apple for $429 million, several of the concepts developed at NeXT were incorporated into later Apple systems, including parts of the OS X and IOS operating systems.  During his hiatus from Apple, Steve Jobs also dabbled with another company called Pixar, which even George Lucas had lost faith in.  Pixar would later go onto produce a number of animated features many of which would receive several Academy Awards.  Jobs also clearly had a bead on the NeXT big trend of the 1990’s which he referred to as interpersonal computing that would soon after appear with a similar moniker: the Internet. 

The term Internet was actually coined back in 1974 as an abbreviation to the term “internetworking”.  Of course, at that time, the only entities internetworking were military sites and universities.  However, by the 1980’s NASA joined the fray by developing the NASA Science Network which allowed scientists to share data on a global basis.  This eventually coalesced into the NASA Science Internet, which eventually connected more than 20,000 scientists worldwide.  As interest in worldwide networking grew, the technology spawned other early adopters, such as Usenet, UUCPNet, FidoNet, JUNET and NSFNET.   During the late 1980’s the first Internet service providers were formed, starting with the first commercial dialup service in the US called "The World."

The Internet Becomes the World Wide Web

By the early '90s, search engines such as Archie and Gopher sprung up, along with the first web browsers, such as ViolaWWW.  While a far cry from the multi-media offerings we have tom to know and expect today, these early search engines and browsers offered little more than text-only listings more reminiscent of Craigslist than Google.  That did not mean that there wasn’t market share to be had. 

Yahoo!Xtra Homepage
Yahoo!Xtra Homepage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As the World Wide Web grew, search engines and web directories began to spring up like weeds with such names as WebCrawler, Lycos, HotBot, Excite, Yahoo (founded in 1994) and AltaVista.  Also several new web browsers hit the market, the most notable of which was Netscape, that appeared in 1994.  Clearly a cut above other web browsers, Netscape Navigator was the gold standard for surfing the web in the 1990’s.  In fact the product was such a hit that only 16 months after its inception, the company went public with its stock soaring from $28 to $58 on the opening day.  It also began the feeding frenzy later called the Tech Bubble that would run rampant for the next six years creating a number of billionaires in the process.

Lots of Billionaires are Created

Netscape Communicator
Netscape Communicator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One such billionaire definitely took notice of Netscape in a big way.  Bill Gates at Microsoft knew a good thing when he saw it.  And he knew that Microsoft had to stake a claim on the Internet.  By August of 1995 Microsoft announced the introduction of Internet Explorer 1.0.  While it took Microsoft more than 5 years to gain the upper hand over Netscape, their dominance in the operating system market opened the doors for them to chip away at Netscape’s market share.  So much so that by June of 2006 went dark for good.  That would seem like good news to Bill at Microsoft.  It probably would have been had it not been for one other upstart named Google.

Begun in March of 1996 as a research project by two Stanford students,  Larry Page and Sergey Brin, their original idea had not been to design a web browser or search engine, ironically. What they were out to develop was the world’s first digital library.  In search of a dissertation theme, Page considered exploring the mathematical properties of the Internet by turning its structure into a gigantic graph.  Page’s web crawling software called BackRub began exploring the web autonomously with Page’s own website serving as ground zero.  His research along Brin’s help eventually morphed into an algorithm that the pair named PageRank, which became the nexus for their Google search engine, which was registered on September 15, 1997.

The Birth of the 800-Pound Gorilla

Google's homepage 1998–1999
Google's homepage 1998–1999 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
By December 1998, Google had an index of about 60 million pages.  But already a number of Internet gurus were arguing that Google’s search results were superior to those of its competitors.  In March 1999, the company moved to Palo Alto.  In June of that same year, it secured $25 million in equity capital from venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Sequoia Capital.  While Brin and Page were hesitant to take the company public, it was Google’s IPO on August 19, 2004 that shook the pillars of the Internet that would ultimately see Google not only as the dominant search engine online, but it would also see the company owning the world’s most popular web browser (Chrome), the world’s most popular video portal (YouTube) and the world’s most popular cellphone operating system (Android).

Of course, like a many innovators that came before them, that doesn’t mean that the latest successors to the Internet crown are always omniscient.  Several of Google’s latest tech forays have yet to come to roost, including a computer worn on your face (Google Glass), a pair of mysterious barges berthed in San Francisco Bay and Maine, and communication blimps that are designed to bring the Internet to sub- Saharan Africa.  Not to be outdone, Apple announced a product a year ago that while intriguing has yet to hit the market called the iWatch.

In this article, I have laid out a portrait of the player and events that have had a significant impact on the creation of the internet. From the early days of Apple and IBM personal computing, through the infancy of the ARPANET, the creation of the World Wide Web, Netscape, Microsoft's IE, Killer apps like Lotus 123, the Search Engines boom days and the Birth of Google.  

Love them or hate them, one thing you can say about the smartest guys in the room is that they will never leave you bored. I can’t wait to see what comes "NeXT." If you liked this article, pass it on to your friends and co-workers. If you have a comment, enter it below.  

Until next time, keep watching the WWW evolve. 

If you like this article, you can find more by typing “inventors or high tech” in the search box at the top left of this blog. If you found this article useful, share it with your friends, families and co-works. If you have a comment related to this article, leave it in the comment sections below. 

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Since 1995, Carl Weiss has been helping clients succeed online.  He owns and operates several online marketing businesses, including Working the Web to Win and Jacksonville Video Production. He also co-hosts the weekly radio show, "Working the Web to Win," every Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern on

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