A mission to set the course of the world wide web in its early days. 10 days to get it done. The result? An indispensable language that changed everything.
00:00 - Saron Yitbarek
Hi, everyone. We're back. We're excited to launch season three of Command Line Heroes. We have so many of you to thank for the stories featured on this show because each and every season begins with us talking to developers, SIS admins, IT architects, engineers, and folks in the open source community about the topics and technologies you're most interested in. Now, we're opening up this approach even more. We want all of you to weigh in and help shape the future of Command Line Heroes. You could do this by taking our short survey. What do you like about the show? What would you like us to talk about more? Dear listener, we want to know more about you. Are you a developer? Do you work in operations, or do you do something completely separate from the world of tech? Go to commandlineheroes.com/survey to help us level up the podcast for season four and beyond. Now, onto season three.
01:00 - Saron Yitbarek
Brendan Eich was 34 years old when he sat down at his desk in the Netscape headquarters. He was committing himself to a massive 10-day sprint of coding. A new language, a whole new programming language in just 10 days. It was 1995 and the world of programming languages was about to change forever.
01:26 - Saron Yitbarek
02:02 - Saron Yitbarek
02:40 - Saron Yitbarek
To really understand how the browser wars went down, I called up one of my favorite tech historians, author Clive Thompson. His most recent book-
02:50 - Clive Thompson
Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and The Remaking of The World.
02:54 - Saron Yitbarek
Clive and I got talking about the browser wars, but let me really set the scene for you. You've got Netscape realizing that the browser was this key piece of software that people were going to use to get online. And then you've got Microsoft, their whole business model was packaging stuff inside Windows. They hadn't really been interested in browsers until in the 1990s, Microsoft realized that maybe they'd been sleeping at the wheel. The world was moving online, and there was nothing inside of Microsoft Windows that would help them get there. But these guys over here, some company called Netscape, they're offering an on-ramp to the internet. All of a sudden, Microsoft's industry wide dominance doesn't look so absolute. The browser wars begin in that moment, the moment when Microsoft wakes up to the power of the internet and squints its eye at their new competition. So, that's my setup. Here's me and Clive hashing out what happened next.
04:03 - Clive Thompson
The fight was over who was going to be the main portal to going online. You have to realize that in the early '90s, no one was really online very much. And when Mosaic came along and eventually turned into Netscape, they were the first browser that anyone could download that will let you look at the web. They went online in December of 1994. So, suddenly, you know thousands and millions of people are able to use the internet in this kind of graphical way. They're just getting massive, massive downloads and huge amounts of press. Everyone's basically saying, "Yeah, Netscape is kind of the future of this thing called the internet."
04:40 - Clive Thompson
So over in Seattle, you've got Microsoft watching this with enormous alarm because they had pretty much ignored the internet. They were focused on selling Windows, and they had really not paid any attention to this crazy newfangled thing called the internet. So they had to play a very rapid game of catch up. They did not get their own browser out for almost a year later. In the fall of 1995, their browser came out, and that was essentially the beginning of the browser wars, the moment when Microsoft was trying to fight to be the portal by which people went online.
05:13 - Saron Yitbarek
Okay. So a year to meet doesn't sound like too bad, right? That’s not too long. Right? That seems like a reasonable amount of time.
05:21 - Clive Thompson
No, it's true. It doesn't sound like a long time, but things were moving so rapidly back then. And there was a strong sense of first mover advantage, that the first company that could sort of brand themselves as the way you get online would be the winner for years and years and maybe forever. I remember how rapid the pace of development was. I mean, Netscape was putting out a new browser every couple of months, right? They would be, "Wow. Now, we've got email integrated into the browser. Now, we've got a sort of a little search bar up top." It just kept on becoming better and better. You could sort of see you know all the things you could do online swimming into view as they've rapidly iterated and rapidly pushed things out.
06:01 - Clive Thompson
Microsoft was accustomed to developing very slowly. Here's your four-year-long development process at the end. It's as bug-free as we can get it. Put it in a box, goes out to the stores, and we don't release a new version for four years. Netscape comes along, and it's the first company to say, "No, we're going to put out kind of a substandard product, but it works well enough, and we're going to have a new one for you to download in three months and three months and three months." This completely destabilized Microsoft.
06:30 - Saron Yitbarek
Okay. So if I'm Microsoft, I can look at it and go, "Oh my goodness. This is the future. I need to catch up. I need to compete," or I can say, "Ah, it's a fad." So what is it about the browser that made Microsoft pick the first option? That made Microsoft go, "Oh my goodness. This is a real thing. I need to compete."
06:51 - Clive Thompson
The thing with the browser was that it had a huge amount of cultural cache. It was the first thing you could do on the internet that was like culturally fun. You could go to suddenly a band's webpage and see posts by them and photos by them. You could go and research your hobby by finding all the model train people in Florida, right? So, everything about the internet before that had seemed nerdy. Email, file transfers, whatnot. I mean, suddenly the browser made the internet look like a magazine, like a fun thing to interact with. Newspapers and CNN and magazines were sort of writing about it in this very excited way for the first time. This was the moment that technology moved from being very deep inside the business section to being on page A1 of the New York Times.
07:41 - Saron Yitbarek
So what was appealing about Netscape or even just the browser in general when it comes to developers? Why were they so into it?
07:48 - Clive Thompson
I've met a lot of developers. Suddenly, the internet comes along with the browser, and you can just have a web page that says, "Just download my cool piece of software." So, it unlocked the entire world of the way that we see software being made today.
08:04 - Saron Yitbarek
I should mention here that at first Microsoft actually offered to buy Netscape. Though they were offering a pretty tiny amount, but Netscape turned them down. So Microsoft had to build a browser of their own. They called theirs Explorer.
08:21 - Clive Thompson
Microsoft spent a year frantically working on a browser, and they got it out in the fall of 1995. They did sort of the same thing that Netscape did. They produced something quickly without worrying if it was perfect and it got better and better. But what really emerged over the latter half of the '90s was a war over whose browser would be the most interesting, the most sort of interactive and sophisticated.
08:53 - Saron Yitbarek
Keep in mind that Netscape by no means had the upper hand here.
08:57 - Clive Thompson
Microsoft had a very powerful position. When you ship Windows on the order of 80 to 90% of all computers on the planet, it's pretty easy to make your software the default. And that's exactly what they did. So you see Explorer sort of rise and rise and rise.
09:16 - Saron Yitbarek
In a way, poor old Netscape was always the underdog in that battle, but here's the thing. Before the battle was over, they threw a beautiful Hail Mary, and it turns out that would become an incredible score for the whole world of programming.
09:35 - Clive Thompson
09:43 - Saron Yitbarek
All that heat around the web, around the potential of life in a browser had made one thing very clear. We needed a new programming language, something that went far beyond HTML. We needed a language tailor made for all that new web-based development. We wanted a language that didn't just survive online but thrived there.
10:10 - Clive Thompson
How do you create a programming language for the browser?
10:15 - Saron Yitbarek
That, my friend, was the billion dollar question. So around the time Netscape saw that Microsoft was competing with them, they took a look at Java™. Was Java going to be the language for web development? Java was this rich compiled language. It performed just as well as C++. But it did still need to be compiled. Developers really wanted something more lightweight, something that could be interpreted instead of compiled, something that would appeal to all those non-professional programmers that were swarming to the web. Those new programmers wanted to work directly on the webpage after all. That was the dream.
11:05 - Saron Yitbarek
Netscape needed a programming language that would run inside their browser, something that would allow developers to bring those static webpages to life. Wouldn't it be great, they thought, if they could release a new lightweight language that worked wonders for web programming, at the same time that they released Netscape 2.0 in beta. There was only one hitch. That gave them exactly 10 days to create a new language. Actually, it gave one guy, Brendan Eich, 10 days. He was the one tasked with pulling this off. There was no doubt that if anybody could do it, this guy could. When Brendan was a student at the University of Illinois, he used to create new languages for fun, just to play around with syntax.
11:57 - Charles Severance
12:05 - Saron Yitbarek
To understand what Eich actually pulled off, we reached out to Charles Severance, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information.
12:14 - Charles Severance
12:56 - Saron Yitbarek
What Eich delivered was not just a toy language though. It was sophisticated in hidden ways, drawing on major inspirations from languages that had come before.
13:07 - Charles Severance
13:41 - Charles Severance
14:12 - Saron Yitbarek
14:46 - Charles Severance
15:17 - Saron Yitbarek
15:29 - Charles Severance
16:05 - Saron Yitbarek
Charles Severance is a professor at the University of Michigan School of Information. Netscape had been incredibly strong coming out of the gate, and they fought hard during the browser war, but in the end ...
16:22 - Clive Thompson
Netscape just disappears as a serious product.
16:27 - Saron Yitbarek
17:01 - Saron Yitbarek
If you started coding more recently, you might take for granted that you can develop interactive web pages that change and update without pulling a whole new copy of the page from the server. But imagine for a sec what it was like when doing that became a brand new option. We asked Michael Clayton, a Software Engineer at Red Hat, to help us understand what a huge shift that was.
17:28 - Michael Clayton
17:49 - Saron Yitbarek
Say you're looking at your inbox, and you click on an email. In the old days, your email viewer would load a whole new page in your browser just to show you that email. Then you close that email and it would reload the whole inbox.
18:05 - Michael Clayton
18:23 - Saron Yitbarek
That saved a ton of time and energy. But really think about it, it changed more than just the speed. It changed the very nature of our work.
18:35 - Michael Clayton
So web developer as a job title has gone from being a server-side, kind of behind the scenes role, to being just a very thin layer away from the user since they're writing code directly in the browser that the user is viewing the webpage through.
18:52 - Saron Yitbarek
19:16 - Michael Clayton
19:43 - Saron Yitbarek
Soon enough, though, the beauty and the potential inherent in Brendan Eich's 10-day language became obvious to everyone. And now, it's conquering not just the browser but the server, too. With Node.js, a whole new territory for that little-language-that-could has opened up.
20:03 - Michael Clayton
20:32 - Michael Clayton
21:11 - Saron Yitbarek
21:25 - Michael Clayton
22:08 - Saron Yitbarek
22:25 - Klint Finley
Hi, my name is Klint Finley. I'm a writer for Wired.com.
22:28 - Saron Yitbarek
22:40 - Klint Finley
23:07 - Saron Yitbarek
So Klint decided to run a little experiment.
23:10 - Klint Finley
23:21 - Saron Yitbarek
23:39 - Klint Finley
In general, it was just a much better web experience in a lot of ways in terms of pages loading quicker, pages being cleaner, the battery life on my computer lasting longer, and just having a more of a sense of control over what was happening on my computer because there's not all of these just weird invisible random programs running in the background.
24:02 - Saron Yitbarek
And just imagine the bliss of living without pop-up ads for the first time.
24:07 - Klint Finley
24:17 - Saron Yitbarek
24:26 - Klint Finley
25:05 - Saron Yitbarek
25:34 - Saron Yitbarek
It's worth taking a step back and remembering here, in 1995, just a couple of decades ago, Brendan Eich was sitting in a room, hammering out a new language. And today, that language permeates everything we do. It might sound a bit cliché to say that some new string of code is going to change the world, but it does happen. A command line hero marshalls all their love for languages into a 10-day sprint, and the world's DNA is changed forever.
26:10 - Saron Yitbarek
26:59 - Saron Yitbarek
Next time, Command Line Heroes gets caught in a web of languages, and we'll explore how Perl came to thrive in a wild new frontier.
28:04 - Saron Yitbarek