The Greatest Internet Pioneers You Never Heard Of: The Story of Erwise and Four Finns Who Showed the Way to the Web Browser
Three quiet and unknown Finnish engineers in their late thirties, Kim Nyberg, Kari Sydänmaanlakka, and Teemu Rantanen, have spent their working careers at the engineering software company Tekla in Finland. Their clients have used the software they created to model several well-known buildings, including Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, New York’s Hearst Tower, the famous ‘Bird’s Nest’ that is Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, and the world’s tallest building, Burj Dubai.
But if matters had turned out a little differently, these men—and a former colleague named Kati Suominen (now Kati Borgers) who could not be present at the interview—might have become known as the Fathers and Mother of the World Wide Web browser.
[Editor’s note: This article is our first from Juha-Pekka Tikka, Xconomy’s new Fellow from Stanford University’s Innovation Journalism program. “JP,” a reporter at Ilta-Sanomat, a major national newspaper in Finland, will be based in our Xconomy San Diego offices.]
According to the trio, whom I met earlier this year in Finland, the Internet’s rise and emergence as a daily working tool might have happened a year earlier than it did had their group been able to complete their project.
The four Finns developed a graphical, point-and-click Internet browser a year before the pioneering Mosaic browser on which Netscape Communications was based: the historical Netscape IPO in August 1995 is widely credited with starting the Internet boom.
“Our 1991 X Window system browser, ‘Erwise,’ showed that a net browser was possible. We were ahead of the times. The next step, to commercialize it, did not happen,” Kim Nyberg says.
Aside from some local media, the Finns have never before been interviewed about this remarkable story. But Erwise has an important place in the Internet’s birth history. And its fate offers a case study of what happens when invention and innovation are not accompanied by funding, talent infusion, and a strong venture capital market or angel investor presence—all ingredients that Silicon Valley (where Mosaic was funded and developed) takes for granted.
In the U.S., commercialization of the browser, now so much a part of our everyday lives, began in 1994, after Marc Andreessen left the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, where he and Eric Bina had developed the Mosaic browser the previous year. Andreessen had moved to California following his December 1993 graduation and teamed up with Silicon Graphics founder Jim Clark, backed by venture capital powerhouse Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, to form Mosaic Communications, later renamed Netscape Communications. Europe was quickly left out in the cold.
But for a few key factors, it didn’t have to be that way. In 1991, Nyberg, Sydänmaanlakka, Rantanen, and Suominen were young IT undergraduate students at HUT, Helsinki University of Technology. The campus is actually located in Espoo, just a few miles from Helsinki and only half a mile away from the headquarters of Nokia Corporation. At that time, Nokia was not internationally known.
The four were about half-way through their studies when they met that September at a HUT course on designing and coding software.
In Switzerland, meanwhile, Tim Berners-Lee had just laid the groundwork for the World Wide Web at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). He thought the Web would be a useful tool for researchers and others but was frustrated at its pace of growth, which he partly attributed to the lack of a point-and-click browser. As he notes in his 1999 book Weaving the Web, “We were so busy trying to keep the Web going that there was no way we could develop browsers ourselves, so we energetically suggested to everyone everywhere that the creation of browsers would make useful projects for software students at universities.”
How did this project end up in Finland? It was largely because CERN was a European research center, and Berners-Lee and his colleague Robert Cailliau had apparently just visited HUT to speak about their work. (In his book, Berners-Lee only mentions Cailliau visiting HUT during this period, but the Erwise group say they positively remember Berners-Lee speaking.) Finland also was a frontier of information technology at the time: the Finnish university network FUNET had been established in 1984, and chatting protocol IRC, Linus Torvalds’ Linux, and SMS text messaging had all been created there.
Whoever was the conduit, Berners-Lee’s request attracted the attention of the Finns’ instructor, Ari Lemmke, who suggested the group start to work on it or “something Linux-related.” They chose the browser.
As Kim Nyberg explains: “Ours was a totally unknown field. But when we heard of the idea of the browser, we realized that it could be a big thing. We were amazed when we thought what all this could lead to. It became a truly interesting experience.”
The four Finns completed their browser by April 1992: only a couple thousand lines of code were needed, so the work was feasible. They demonstrated it to their professor, Martti Mäntylä, showing how Erwise could surf Web pages—there were just 12 in the world at the time, according to Nyberg, Sydänmaanlakka, and Rantanen. The students got a top grade from their professor.
The men are still very proud of Erwise. Despite being such an early take on the idea of the graphical browser, it already had interesting and advanced applications. You could click the highlighted hypertext link with your mouse, and a new page was opened! Erwise could also search for text on a Web page. The browser even could load several different pages simultaneously, which Mosaic still could not do a year later.
Erwise even seemed to sow some seeds of Google. If Erwise couldn’t find a search word on one page, it would start to look for the term on other Web pages. Such a function would become the basis of crawler or spider programs that today’s search engines rely on.
Erwise was soon followed by other browsers, such as ViolaWWW and Midas. Andreessen’s team at NCSA created Mosaic independently, but version 1.0 wasn’t released until about year later, in early 1993.
“At first they did a lot of things quite wrong with Mosaic. There were problems we had already solved,” Nyberg laughs (You can find a 1993 e-mail from Nyberg to Marc Andreessen with some advice regarding Mosaic here.) In any case, Mosaic brought the World Wide Web to the general public. A year after that, Clark and Andreessen incorporated Mosaic Communications, soon to be known as Netscape—and the rest, as they say, is history.
Why didn’t Erwise become a household name? Why aren’t the Finns billionaires or mega-millionaires, like Clark and Andreessen?
The three engineers I met with laugh and remember those times with nostalgia. The Finns knew what they had accomplished and considered their options. But for a variety of reasons, they say, Erwise could not have achieved commercialization.
They point out one decisive issue: Finland in April 1992 was in a horrible recession. The country was almost bankrupt. No corporate, venture, or government money was available for startups, and there were no angel investors in Finland at the time. Nobody even knew the concept.
Teemu Rantanen reminisces about those years so long ago. “We could not have created a business around Erwise in Finland then. The only way we could have made money would have been to continue our developing it so that Netscape might have finally bought us,” he says. “Still, the big thing is, we could have reached the initial Mosaic level with relatively small extra work. We should have just finalized Erwise and published it on several platforms.”
Rantanen says he tried to get a summer job at HUT 1992 to do just that. But there was no money, even for a single summer job, to get the work done.
Besides that, the three men were already working at Tekla. They were young and thrilled to have steady jobs. (Today Kati Borgers runs a small children’s clothing company.) Erwise faded away, then and there.
“That meant an extra year for the whole development of the World Wide Web,” says Nyberg, who’s currently Tekla’s technology chief.
“Making a product out of Erwise was perhaps not executed at the best level,” Sydänmaanlakka replies with dark humor.
“But hey, we didn’t exactly end up in the gutter,” adds Nyberg. “We just went and built different important things, creating international applications and business in Tekla.”
I asked them about one last thing, which has gotten a bit confused over the years: the origin of the name “Erwise.” In Weaving the Web, Berners-Lee says that “because the department was ‘OTH’ they decided to call the browser Erwise (OTH + Erwise = ‘Otherwise’).” But while that’s pretty close, it isn’t quite right, according to the Finns.
The software course was called ohjelmatyö in Finnish (“OHT,” not “OTH,” as Berners-Lee wrote). Lemmke did not like to call the groups OHT-1, OHT-2 and so on, so he renamed them.
Lemmke’s idea was to call the browser “something else,” the three say. From there it became “otherwise,” and from there Erwise. The name also was meant to convey at least a vague reference to the Wais database system, a reference more apparent when you pronounce Erwise and Wais in a Finnish way. And it was important that Erwise could handle Wais.
“It was just totally twisted nerd humor,” Sydänmaanlakka says.
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