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Back to chats Special edition from BlinkOn 13: Igalia's Brian Kardell sits down to chat with Ben Goodger and Darin Fisher about Web History

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  • Brian Kardell: Okay so, i'm Brian Kardell I'm currently from Igalia and i'm here for blink on 13 with some web friends
  • Ben Goodger: Yeah, I'm Ben Goodger .I'm also passionate about the web. Currently working at Google. I have worked on the web for a very long time, through different eras. Initially as a hobbyist, then at Netscape and at Mozilla andas I said now at Google, excited to lead the web platform team and push the platform forward.
  • Darin Fisher: And I'm Darin Fisher. Currently also at Google.My whole career has been spent building working on browsers. About 20 years now, and continues to be an incredibly exciting area and there's so much to do.
  • Brian Kardell: Yeah, so, we've all been involved with theweb for a really long time in some fashion, and we thought this is a interesting moment in web history because last year the web by some accounts turned 30. But, 30 years ago it was an idea on a piece of paper that Tim Berners-Lee handed to his boss and so you could probably fit the number of people who knew anything about it into a small bathroom maybe. As things progressed over the next several years people like us began to learn about it - but that's still a pretty small group - and I think you would have to be like somewhere around 40 or over - so we have some unique insight and history and experiences that would be great to like get down and record and talk about. So, maybe we could start with just like: What was your first browser? Mine was... uh I don't know if it was Mosaic or Netscape. I think it might have been briefly mosaic, but I don't know what about what about you Ben?
  • Ben Goodger: Yeah, actually... So this is interesting..My first browser was Internet Explorer 2.0, and I used that because I didn't have an internet connection myself. I borrowed one. And borrowing the internet connection, I was subject to whatever browser was on the system and it was a windows network, and that's what they had. I think at that time uh they were they'd began pushing Internet Explorer through onto on as a default part of windows, and so that was kind of my first deport into that world. And I remember at that time it was kind of interesting because there was some newer tech that had just come out, and there were newer versions of the browsers but I was kind of stuck on the older version, and so I kind of had that sense of being stuck behind the compatibility curve and that there wassome some new stuff out there and I couldn't quite get it yet but I was excited to be part of it all the same
  • Brian Kardell: Darin what about you?
  • Darin Fisher: Yeah, myself... I have to really think back - a bunch of sort of fuzzy memories... But, I was in college uh at the time and I certainly have a pretty vivid memory of encountering mosaic on a DEC workstation in the mechanical engineering labs. I didn't really know too much about it at the time or why I should use it or you know why it was interesting. My first experience with the internet was email, and that was that made a lot of sense to me - but I hadn't yet really figured out why I should care about the web. Brian Kardell: Yeah, this is, I think, a really interesting thing for people today because the internet and the web are just sort of synonymous and they're they're just like background noise. Like everybody just sort of like assumes that they were there and that a lot of things were very similar but, like, you mentioned that you learned about it in a lab. I don't know Ben, how you learned about it? For me, I learned about the web in a bookstore in rural vermont. I was living in rural vermont and I used to wander a bookstore. Like... we used to go to physical bookstores, once upon a time. I write about it, and it actually came with some physical media and I put it onto my computer and then I decided well maybe I should get one of these internet connection things. That seems pretty interesting. But yeah what a what a different thing, right? That like... people didn't even know about the web and how we learned about it was largely through physical media. Like, one of those was uh through AOL, which began pushing itself. There were lots of services bringing people online that were kind of actually in a way at first fighting the web. The web is going to be like one really small part of what you do. Like, Darin, I think you actually later on worked at one of those, right?Yeah, well, Ben and I both worked at AOL. I started there in 2000. My father actually worked at AOL for longer, and so at home you know, I saw, we used AOL. You know, before that, um CompuServe. But... I mean... I was at I was in university at this time, but when I would come home I would see these things and, you know, my journey to AOL though was sort of because my father worked there, so I took an internship at AOL. And I just so happened to land on a team that was building a set-top box that happened to be built using the Gecko codebase/Mozilla codebase. And, so then I became aware of that codebase even. And, subsequently when I thought about getting a full-time job I got interested in going to work at AOL, but actually to go work on Netscape largely because I wanted to... that internship was on the east coast, but I actually wanted to be on the west coast back in California. And I didn't know much about all about browsers I really didn't know very much at all about web technologies certainly didn't know anything about JavaScript and I started though at AOL, at netscape, working on the networking team where I could read man pages and and and learn about BSD sockets and try to and read rfcs and try to fix bugs and http stacks so that's how I kind of got going in this whole space.
  • Brian Kardell: I think it's interesting like, how young all these things were, and how they were all kind of happening at the like more or less the same time and like we didn't know how what we were doing with any of it, honestly. Because, like, even software - only in the mid-80s a few years before the web did we even decide that you could copyright it. Likem that was actually a question: Could you? Because most things before that were like, more about like research and discussion and things were more open... So I think that that was like a really interesting change and a neat fact. I don't know if you either or both of you know this but, you know Tim Berners-Lee, when he created the web, he didn't want to build a web browser. He thought that there actually were perfectly good things that did almost everything that he wanted but just didn't understand URLs and so he, famously at a party, would try to give the web to a guy named Guy Ritchie who made some software which was, basically a web browser, even called its markup language Hypertext Markup Language and it looked very very similar, and so the web was almost born as a shrink wrap software project which people would have bought - which is interesting like a web browser that you would buy.
  • Darin Fisher: Well, people did by Netscape as shrink wrapped..
  • Brian Kardell: Right, well I was just gonna say... Yeah so the interesting thing there is because Guy Richie rejected that idea, which he has a great ted talk you can you can watch if you haven't seen it called The Day I Turned Down Tim Berners-Lee, because he did that we entered this new era where Free Software, which was also very new as kind of a pushback of that shrink wrap/copyright the software idea and so the very, very early browsers were sort of that. And then mosaic came along and it it was licensable. And then we got Netscape and both of you wound up working for Netscape, right? While it was still a product that people would buy, right?
  • Ben Goodger: Yeah, yeah I mean certainly I might have a shrink wrap copy of it around here somewhere, down in the basement... In the corner of the basement. It was kind of interesting you know? Like, I think that as i'm thinking about how I learned about it, like... How I should, you know to like open a browser or do something like that - I think that like, you know, like Darin, going back in time: I was aware that there were these 'information portals' out there... And I grew up in New Zealand and there was this thing called CompuSeve Pacific, and they advertised extensively on TV, and so I knew it was there. I didn't actually have it, but I kind of was aware of what it was. And then kind of around the the early part of the 90s there was a lot of discussion about the 'information superhighway' and how that would connect the whole world together and there would be these amazing things that would happen and it would transform business and all that kind of stuff. No one quite knew like... what concretely that meant, but there was a lot of a lot of press coverage and you heard about it everywhere and so eventually it was like 'well, here's this tool that gives you a window onto it' and what is it? how do I figure that out? And so, for me, you know my journey to Netscape it was kind of... it was interesting. Becausem I started you knowm first of all exploring the web seeing this limitless frontier of interesting stuff, and just spending hours and hours crawling around... And then like... I remember going into a... just like looking at a magazine rack and there was a magazine there called Net Guide and I was like flipping through it... so... yeah, because it wasn't Google at that point - and so like... You did kind of have to find these entry points to help you structure your activity. And so, in the back of that magazine there was a little section there for how to make your own web page and it had some links to sites to go to that told you how to do that. And then it was like kind of mind exploding - like not only was this thing you know kind of infinite and rapidly growing - but I could contribute to it too! And then I went and did that - and I had no technical skill at all. I was just like interested in it and was able to start to like find some HTML, modify it and iterate on it until I got something that kind of looked like I wanted - which was tremendously empowering. And then discovering JavaScript and, like, figuring out how to make things more interactive and it's through that that I developed the skill to eventually contribute to Mozilla and end up working at Netscape. And so it's kind of a... I think it's an incredible thing. And yeah.
  • Brian Kardell: Yeah I think that that's like, an almost universal story for a lot of people. Like, this idea that you could view the source and then you could change just a little bit and you could see what happened. And you don't need compilers and you don't need, like... you don't need a lot of deep technical knowledge you can even get a lot wrong. Like, you ycan get a *lot* wrong - it could be actually nonsensical even, and you'll still see a result. It was like *so* powerful. I gave a talk and the slide I have on that is the scene from Cast Away, like 'I...I have created fire!'. Like... That's really what it felt like in a way isn't it like... it's hard to explain to people today ..Like, what a...I... I don't think that there was anything like that up until that point.
  • Ben Goodger: That the whole idea of software development where , like as you say, like you needed a expensive compiler suite you needed to have you know more computer science knowledge, you need to you have just to kind of get started with - whereas, like for me, interested in just like the way things look - UI building stuff - like that like the the amount of investment needed to get to that payoff was so small. And that so it was kind of very easy to be to get into the state of flow, and even if, you know, because I didn't have a very fast computer or, you know, that that type of thing it was possible to do that so that. To me that was like the most incredible thing about the platform.
  • Darin Fisher: Yeah, I remember very much copying some code for a, you know, a counter - or a visit counter to put onto my own website... if you remember how many websites used to have the visit counters... and I yeah I remember copying that not really knowing what I was doing but I had I determined that that was the piece I had to copy out and into my own page and it worked! And I was like... Yes!
  • Brian Kardell: Yeah, it kind of felt like a being a god for a minute there or something ,right? It's just so.... It's so empowering really. It's like... It's hard to explain, I think, because like... we've a little bit gotten away from that. We don't have to, the web still has that superpower - but for a lot of people they feel the barrier is higher in a lot of things today, but I think that it's just like amazing because we do still have this like very low barrier and the more we help people see that and understand that, I think it's just like continuously empowering. And I think another thing that's like really, really interesting about this is that if you recall... Well, so let's talk really quickly about... Ben you said that you got internet explorer - so, at the time Netscape... Their IPO was sort of like the first web IPO, and it was... astounding. Like it was... oh my god. People said 'the web is like... it's a thing. Like.... it's a money-making thing that could happen'. It's amazing... And there were books written and articles written which dominated press coverage that Bill Gates, who had become uber rich off of windows, had sort of missed the boat, right? Like everybody said 'Well, I mean it's... he could not possibly catch up now', right? But then Internet Explorer came along and it was pushed with the OS... Which was like, a thing that had never happened before - and I think it got a lot more people on the web, right? Like... it was an interesting development
  • Ben Goodger: Yeah, yeah.. I mean it's like there's there's power in access... but then I think I mentioned before as well like because I was was stuck with a browser that was a little bit behind the times, like by the time I was using it that already released Internet Explorer installed on the device but you became aware that there was this choice out there - because the other thing that happened in the time - because there was this very vigorous competition between both Internet Explorer and Netscape, you know, not just on product user experience but also on the platform -- the platform was being tugged in all of these interesting ways. In very incompatible ways. And web developers, you know, they embrace the browser that they built with, and then they advertise that on their their website. So another thing, in addition to the the visit counter, is the 'best viewed and in IE', like those types of things. And you see those and you're like 'what is this? what is this other thing? oh wait there's another browser?!' Like, 'why would I choose that oh it has this feature!' - and so it's kind of interesting. Then and I remember, like around that time, sort of late 90s, at that point 97 - Netscape had just released Netscape 4 and it had this new thing uh dynamic HTML, DHTML, with layers and, that plus javascript was like: The next thing. Because the web experiences I think were richer than a traditional windows application. You know, with your battleship gray, and, you know... Forms and you enter texted boxes web applications, they were more interesting to look at but with dynamic HTML. It became this thing that... where they were just magic in a way that you hadn't seen, maybe except for, you know, cd-rom type experiences,. And there were... I remember encountering this website that was about... it was paid for by the city of Vancouver, that was positioning their city as like, vancouver 2000 or 2020, or something like that. And, it was... it heavily used layers for everything like their whole thing: overlays and menus and windows and other stuff - and it was again like kind of head exploding to see that you could build something that rich with this tech stack. And at that point it was like 'yeah... okay... it's important to find a browser that is on the cutting edge not just of features but also for a platform that's super interesting guys'
  • Darin Fisher: Yeah, I... I you know back then I wasn't as like, well, very savvy about the actual web platform itself. But as a user I certainly remember when I came to prefer Internet Explorer over Netscape. I remember on my Windows machine being able to configure Internet Explorer to be just like... have less ui around the webpage and to be just cleaner and lighter and simpler, and I just like 'why _wouldn't_ you use this? It seems better.' And.. and... I just like, didn't even think about it. You know, however, for me in university, I wasn't I was often not on a Windows machine. And much more often on a UNIX or or as it came to be Linux machines, and then Netscape was just so essential. And I think actually that experience at school, a lot of the work was done on MATLAB. And, you could get MATLAB on a Linux machine which meant you could actually work on do your work at home and not have to be in the lab. And, again, having a browser being able to access things through telnet, being able to email... All these tools became so, so essential to like not having to trudge into the lab at night or the middle on the weekend to do my work and... and I and through that I grew an affinity for open source as well and and the whole Linux sort of world. And then, to me, like... Ultimately getting to work on Netscape felt so satisfying because I it was a way to make that that world better to make Linux desktop better. And that... that sort of thing that I had, that made made my life better, I wanted to work on making it better.
  • Brian Kardell: I think... I think there's, like... such a... such an interesting interplay of many of the things that we said so far. Because if you look at... So, there were lots of people coming in with lots of ideas in these sort of, like, really limited platform in the early days - and people trying to push the envelope. Like, when you give people a thing, they begin to explore - to really push the edges of the envelope, and see what they can do with it. And they learn a little bit more, and they get a little bit more ambitious. And like, the things that they build are interesting, and sometimes the things that sort of win are like... very unpredictable. And, I think that the web is like that in a lot of ways. Like, it... if you look at... at the time. The microsoft inter... uh microsoft... what was called? Oh... Outlook Express was on it. Like, it came with your OS, basically.
  • Darin Fisher: Yeah, a lot of times when I clicked on mailto: links...
  • Brian Kardell: Right, yeah, yeah! So, actually... if you look at the the experience of that: it looks more or less like a modern email client. Like, it was comparatively a rich application and it looked like everything else on your on your OS. But, it like, is very rich in interactions, and things that you can do. And then, like, we built these really comparatively basic email clients [on the web], but they had this special sauce that was like, the thing that you were just saying Darin - which is like, you could get to it from anywhere, right? And then it had this other aspect, that you were mentioning Ben, which is like ... like designers got interested and they were like 'ah but we can do these things that you can't easily do on the desktop OS!'. And, I think it's it's just amazing to have watched that evolve and... and win.
  • Darin Fisher: Just to riff on what you just said, I mean the fact that you can push out new software so easily over the web as opposed to back in the days of shrink wrapped, you know software... You know, 'Please will you take one? Buy my new cd-rom?' is a lot different than 'here's the new version of my website', you know? I think it's it's really transformative, and for so many, uh... in so many ways.
  • Ben Goodger: And then on top of that, there's the idea that if I find something that I like that I can send it to you, you know? By a chat or email or, you know, that that type of thing. And then you can drop right in. And so, you can see the web as having created this sort of viral moment: The idea of the virus because of the power of the link.
  • Brian Kardell: Absolutely... So, we're almost out of time and I think that a good way to close this out is to talk about uh the rise of Internet Explorer and its extreme dominance, and the project that both of you worked on inside of Netscape. It was called Mozilla - do either of you want to say like... what that was, or like, what mozilla stood for sort of?
  • Ben Goodger: Yeah... I mean, so, you know, I joined Netscape, you know, after contributing to Mozilla. And, the thing that appealed to me about that it was... Actually, you know, as I understood the... the strategy - and there's a great documentary by the way you can watch about this called Code Rush that you can find on on YouTube somewhere, it's a PBS documentary that was filmed back when Mozilla was forming... It was basically the idea of 'Can we, you know, because this is really a global thing - can we interest people who are passionate about the web around the world to come and help build that?' And that was really a rallying call for me because, like Darin, I felt like internet explorer was actually a better product. It had better features. You know, I could configure the UI the way I wanted, and that type of thing. And Netscape kind of sucked. It was janky, slow, it didn't have the right features yet. At the same time, being this thing that you could actually change, it was really - that was really powerful concept. And so from my perspective, that was that was the call that I heard. That was the purpose. You know, trying to keep this thing, you know availble and accessible to all.
  • Darin Fisher: And yeah, like I said, I was very selfish. I just wanted a browser that worked well on Linux. But yeah, I think the ideas around open source were really amazing for me. I was struck when I first started working at Netscape um how I could like check in, and... and code... and introduce bugs, and it would get triaged by somebody in a totally different time zone. And then the next day I'd come in and there was a bug report for what I screwed up, and that was that was fantastic. The turnaround time and the collaboration around the open source project was really remarkable, and I found that especially in Mozilla. Maybe... I don't know, it just had such a diverse group of people who were contributing and contributing in so many different ways, you know? Certainly people writing code, but a lot of people helping diagnose issues and helping with the reporting of bugs and helping with you know documenting things and so on. And you see projects like MDN that have been so successful, and that was about allowing for that open collaboration... And it's just amazing some of the things that that came around that... that sort of environment.
  • Ben Goodger: Right, and I think that was partly because the so much of the the team at Netscape was operating, you know, in the public that - you know, and then they had this new server that you could go to you could see all... You kind of see the org structure of the company, as someone on the outside. And you can go and find 'oh I want to work on UI...' Like, 'I'll go to the the cross platform front end xpfd group and i'll find like the the engineers that are working on that there' and I can start a thread and ask a question and you know within 24 hours usually they would respond. And, it was like 'wow this is cool'
  • Brian Kardell: Yeah, I think that it's amazing that the the web, in essence, through that switch from Netscape to Mozilla, really helped reshape the entire software industry in in a really big way, creating open source. Like, the modern idea of open source. So, just as a thing to wrap up: It's amazing that we have come full circle and today all of the browser engines are again open source and free software. So amazing. That's an amazing story to me and I think it's really great for all the reasons that you were that you were saying.
  • Darin Fisher: Yeah, so I think that's a large project.... You know, building a browsing a browser engine and the sort of the way that a community of people can really make them work better. And it's it's... It is remarkabl.
  • Brian Kardell: I wonder if it's. like. interesting to like... In wrapping up to say how big a project it is? Like, I don't think that most people understand quite that - I think chromium is currently at about 25 million lines of code....
  • Darin Fisher: I've lost track
  • Brian Kardell: ... WebKit, WebKit is I think 17 million... But, yeah I mean there are there are really, really big projects with thousands of person years worth of investment into it. It's really amazing.
  • Darin Fisher: Remarkable computer science problems and a vast array of complexity and challenges and things to uh work on. It's... it's it's quite endless in that regard.
  • Ben Goodger: There's a tremendous amount of technical complexity under the hood too. Like, I remember when I was a designer like I wanted to be able to produce something that was like, a sheet of glass you know that had sort of a blurred background where I could move that around and have the background blur. And like, that just wasn't possible in the late 90s. But we've got to a place now where because of that technical sophistication that we've built up where you can actually do effects like that and see the web has gotten more awesome with it. It is increased, you know, complexity... more lines of code... but from a developer and designer perspective it's it's tremendously powerful.
  • Brian Kardell: Okay, I think that we're up against our time so I just wanted to say thanks this was like, really, really fun. I think it was a good conversation thanks both of you so much.
  • Ben Goodger: Thank you.
  • Darin Fisher: Thank you, great chatting