General Programming

Netscape; hindsight is foresight

I have been enjoying reading “Architects of the Web” (see it on my Amazon bookshelf), a collection of stories from the early days of Netscape, Yahoo and the like. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid the doom of repetition, I’ve been reading a lot of “software history” recently … Seattle Public Library has got plenty of cool books.

Chapter one follows the founding of Netscape, from the early days of NCSA Mosaic, the fortuitous meeting of Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark and the beginning of the browser wars. I remember this from first time around, but I didn’t really understand all of what was going on.

The book progresses to follow the start of the browser wars, AOL beginning to bundle IE, Netscape launching the communicator suite …

And then the Netscape part of the book ends.

What? The end? But what about the browser wars? Microsoft getting sued by their own government? The AOL buyout? The Time Warner merger? Open sourcing of mozilla? The doldrums of tangled source code? And finally the rise of firefox?

As I flipped back to the opening “acknowledgements” page, I suddenly understand.

It was written in December 1996.

OMG. This book is a history of the web from the world of 1996. They had no idea what was coming next. Napster was nearly three years away. iTunes and the DRM wars would wait another few years beyond that. Skype, blogs, Flickr and web2.0 weren’t even on the radar yet.

But then again, what would happen if I wrote a ‘history of the web’ book today? Twelve years from now, someone might pick it up and say “Wow, these guys had no idea that X, Y and Z were just around the corner”.

I remember during the early days of Napster, I thought “this is basically illegal and will get squished”. But it took me a while to understand that (although Napster itself would ultimately be doomed) a genie had came out from a bottle and wasn’t ever going back in. Napster itself would end up dead, but so would the “old way of thinking”. It maybe took over a decade, but now stores are selling DRM free digital music and making lots of money doing so. People voted with their feet and it’s hard to stop a crowd.

So it occurs to me that in order to have a chance of seeing the new X, Y and Z before they creep over the horizon, you probably want to try letting go some of your ‘immutable assumptions’ about the world, and see what’d change if the assumption didn’t hold any more. Here’s some which pop into my head: ‘you need to have a bank account to put your money into’, ‘computers are not disposable items’, ‘companies need to keep stuff secret from their competitors’. Coincidentally, I’m also reading a book about Einstein’s life (on my bookshelf) and he’s the posterchild for the the “what happens if we ignore this fundamental assumption” school of thought.

So I’m now wondering: which ‘truths’ will have their demise chronicled in the history books of the future?