To historians of technology, the story of the internet—essentially, the story of how our cognition and culture began to merge with machines—is often focused on hackers and software engineers. Who wrote the code? Who did it first? And then who did it better?
To be sure, there’s plenty of tech jargon in Brian McCullough’s “How the Internet Happened.” You can find out who got the first iPhone call and who posted the first YouTube video. Yet Mr. McCullough takes a broader view, showing how a handful of powerful companies—all of them American, in his telling—came to dominate web technology. In his story, the internet didn’t happen only because of wizardly coding and cheaper computers. It also happened because of serendipity, failure, friendships and blood feuds. And through it all a rainfall of cash (from venture capitalists, Wall Street and individual shareholders) eased a glide path to success.
How the Internet Happened
By Brian McCullough
Liveright, 371 pages, $28.95
The seminal event—the “big bang,” in Mr. McCullough’s view—was the Netscape IPO on Aug. 9, 1995, when the stock of a fairly obscure company peddling a seemingly arcane product went on sale. By the end of the first day, a corporation that had no significant profits was worth $2.1 billion. If you followed the IPO when it occurred, or if you enjoyed Michael Lewis’s “The New New Thing” (1999), Mr. McCullough’s retelling might seem over-familiar. Indeed, some readers might see Mr. McCullough’s history as too obvious, as we move from the Netscape techquake to the succession of entrepreneurs who became rich and famous in the years just after. We all know the names: Jeff Bezos, Steve Case, Jerry Yang, Pierre Omidyar, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg. We all know their stories. Or at least we believe we do.
Yet Mr. McCullough’s book adds to our understanding by explaining how startups’ histories were interlocked and how entrepreneurs and CEOs battled one another not only on a technological and cultural playing field but in the financial markets too. The business clashes were fierce, with Yahoo rejecting offers from Microsoft, and Google (and later Facebook) rejecting overtures from Yahoo. Every web entrepreneur seemed both cocky and paranoid. Meanwhile, almost everybody lived in fear of that eminent philanthropist Bill Gates, who never hesitated to crush a competitor or acquire an upstart. Yet when entrepreneurs did manage to avoid the dark lord of Redmond, their company’s growth could be astounding. “In the twelve months of 1998,” Mr. McCullough reminds us, “Yahoo stock returned 584%, AOL 593% and Amazon 970%.” In fact, during the 1990s, AOL’s stock appreciated 80,000%.
Of course, it didn’t always last. Some of the most interesting moments in “How the Internet Happened” occur when we meet again the already-forgotten players of the early days. Remember the search engines Lycos and Excite, or vanished digital publications like Feed or Suck? Or what about those profitless but hypertrophied creatures of the dot-com boom, such as theglobe.com? In 1999 a company called Pixelon raised $35 million, Mr. McCullough notes, to develop video and audio streaming. But even if the idea had been technologically feasible in an era of limited bandwidth, the company’s founders seemed more interested in partying than building out their technology. Pixelon spent $16 million of its startup kitty “on a company launch party at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas that featured performances by KISS, the Dixie Chicks, Sugar Ray, and a reunion concert by the Who.”
It’s remarkable that after the smoke cleared we were left with something truly new. One of the lessons from Mr. McCullough’s history is that some of the also-rans of the early years gave rise to the dominating businesses of today. To take just one example, GoTo.com (later Overture) was probably the first search engine to come up with a plausible bidding system for paying advertisers. Google already had a powerful search engine. But Mr. McCullough asserts that only by having “cribbed” from Overture’s template for advertising—and then improving on it—did Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s young company become immensely profitable.
Such historical tidbits help us see that today’s tech titans didn’t arrive on the scene as superhuman. People we now think of as oracular—Bill Gates, for sure, but also Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg—were propelled by good ideas and good timing. But they were mostly making things up as they went along. Many of these leaders could never have made it to exalted status, Mr. McCullough reminds us, without deputies doing a lot of the grunt work. At Amazon, there was Shel Kaphan, “who would go on to write much of the initial structure that would become the Amazon site.” At eBay, Mary Lou Song was essential in “cultivating the community” that proved fundamental to the site’s success.
All of which is to say that the history of the internet has already been refracted too much by myth. It was messy; it was ugly. Heroes often looked like fools, and vice versa. Mr. McCullough exits on the point that the beautiful things that ultimately epitomized the internet’s evolution—the iPod and iPhone—probably didn’t happen exactly as we remember either. Steve Jobs didn’t want to open his online music store to Windows users—the move that ultimately sparked Apple’s rebirth—until, exasperated, he told those advocating the change at Apple: “Go do whatever the hell you want.”
He was even reluctant to do the iPhone until he was persuaded by some of his top engineers. Eventually he gave the green light. And what resulted was the most profitable company in the history of the world, except for maybe the Dutch East India Co.
Do you want to argue about the last point? We all have the internet now. So go ahead, Google it.
Mr. Gertner is the author of “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.”