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Line Mode – World’s second web browser

Line Mode - World's second web browser

The first one always steals the limelight and rightly so. After all, things wouldn’t have taken shape if it wasn’t for the first one. The second is always relegated to… well, the second place. And like most things in this world, this is true for web browsers too.

You may know of the very first web browser – WorldWideWeb (now called Nexus) – created by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. It’s been written about and praised ad nauseam. The browser and the corresponding first web server (CERN httpd) gave birth to the WWW.
But what about the second web browser?

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In this short post, I’m going to tell you about that little program which, though forgotten, was as important as the first one… and, if I may dare say, a tad more significant. How? Glad you asked!

Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web on two NeXTcube computers he had at his laboratory at CERN. These were high-end expensive machines and not everyone could afford them. (FYI, NeXT Computers was founded by Steve Jobs when he resigned from Apple in 1985).

The first browser ran ONLY on NeXTSTEP, the operating system of NeXT computers. For the WWW to become popular, it had to be available to the everyone around the world. If it had remained accessible only to NeXT users, the web would have ended like any another academic project (CERN is a high-energy physics institute). This is where Line Mode, the second web browser, stepped in.

Soon after Nexus was completed, Berners-Lee asked an intern, Nicola Pellow, to start working on a “passive browser” which would run on all popular computers of that time. Pellow received help from Henrik Frystyk Nielsen, Sir Tim’s first graduate student, and the first beta was released on 8th April 1991. A few days later, Line Mode was officially released.

Unlike Nexus, Line Mode was a text browser and could not display images. But it made up for that shortcoming by being available for all well-known operating systems – “All unix systems, VMS with any flavour of TCP/IP, VM/CMS, PC (any reasonable socket library), MVS, (even the Mac).
And that’s the reason I think Line Mode was crucial to the success of the World Wide Web. It was actually quite popular in the early days of the web.

A simulator of the Line Mode browser is still available on the CERN web site – check it out here.

Screenshot of the Line Mode web browser simulator

FYI, Nicola Pellow teamed up with Robert Cailliau to create the very first web browser for the Mac called MacWWW (also known as Samba). It could be had for 50 European Currency Units, which probably makes it the first commercial web software.
[Robert Cailliau was a colleague of Sir Tim at CERN and had played a pivotal role in the development of the World Wide Web.]

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