14. Lou Montulli – building browsers, cookies and more

We’re honored to be joined by the legendary Lou Montulli this week. Some of you hard-bitten ad tech types may not be as familiar with Lou’s legacy as you are with some others’ – but we’d argue he’s more important than most.


He was there at the beginning, working on standards and browsers that established much of the working procedure we take for granted — and some of which we’re trying to change — today. Lou was there in the early 1990s in the minute community that cared about the proto-web, engaging with now legendary characters such as Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, Marc Andreessen at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA) and Jim Clark of SGI and Netscape.

While still a University of Kansas Comp. Sci. major working part-time on the computer center’s help desk, Lou combined two open source projects (Gopher for networking and HyperRez for hypertext) into the Lynx browser. Through that project, he got involved with the early web engineers and the NCSA team building the Mosaic browser.

After a disappointing finish at a national racquetball tournament, Lou returned home to find a message on his answering machine from Jim Clark, inviting him to Illinois for what turned out to be the birth of Netscape. “He was very persuasive,” Lou tells Marty in this candid and captivating interview. “Especially in those days.”

Moving to Mountain View to build Netscape, Lou recalls non-stop work at a pace that came to be known as “Netscape time,” 12 Mountain Dews a day, disagreements over code that almost got physical, parties in the shadow of a giant Wonder Woman doll, and a futon room with no windows … a glorious time when a handful of kids really believed they were changing the world for good with their browser.

In that initial development phase before launch, Lou and his team came up with many features we still use today: HTTPS, server push and client pull, various tags, the famous fish-cam (a live web-cam pointed at Lou’s fish tank), animated GIFs … and the browser cookie.

(Lou also described the development of the cookie in another interview Marty did with him a few years ago.)

As he recalls, the cookie was an afterthought at Netscape, a way to maintain state for single domains so that things like shopping carts would remember items from page-to-page and sites could remember you next time you appeared. Ad tech as we know it was not part of the picture — and indeed, Lou is clear (and right) in his assertion that none of it would work unless cookies were combined with JavaScript, headers and a cooperative network (aka a “conspiracy”) of partner websites.

You can read more about the team’s original thinking behind making third-party cookies active by default in Lou’s own words. In sum: they’re a more transparent and user-controllable option than fingerprinting.

AOL acquired Netscape in 1998 at a time when Microsoft was well into a system-wide effort to dominate the browser market, perceiving a threat to its application development business. As Lou says, that threat was real and Microsoft won; he took a leave of absence from the company that same year and never went back.

“It was a blessing,” says the optimistic engineer. Without that prod, he might not have gone on to found other companies such as Memory Matrix (acquired by Shutterfly, where he was CTO for a bit); and Zetta, which does storage and disaster recovery for SMBs. He’s currently co-founder of JetInsight, a management system for chartered airline fleets.

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