Book Review: How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone

How the Internet Happened by Brian McCullough gives a great history of how today’s internet came to be. It starts around the time of the development of the first web browsers and goes right through the dot com boom and subsequent crash and on through the rise of amazon, google, netflix and facebook and ends around the time of the launch of the iphone. The author has a podcast ‘The internet history podcast’ in which he has interviewed hundreds of people to conduct research for the book.

I found the stories around the dot com boom and the explosive valuations of companies at the time to be particularly interesting. McCullough gives reasons for why he thinks the dot com boom happened at the time it did and also why he things it can’t really happen again in the same fashion. First off the web was just beginning. Nobody really knew what is was or why would you even need it. It is so ingrained in our lives today that it might be hard to imagine but people did just fine without the web existing. The stock market at the time had been steadily increasing for years. Lots of the baby boomers generation had money and were looking for places to invest. It was a perfect storm that lead to high valuations of companies, which lead to even more insane valuations. It got to a point where it didn’t matter if you had no idea how to make money, or even no possible way to make money, as long as you were associated with the internet and the web you could IPO and get a massive first day valuation pop. Through interviews with investors, as well as people working at these companies we get an insider view of what it was like during that time.

Some of the other things that stood out to me in the book was how the internet and web were like the wild west. Nothing existed and yet there was no limit to what could be done. Nobody had figured out how to properly make money on the web. Which is probably the main reason bigger companies ignored the web for so long.

Amazon launch their whole business with just a website where you could order books. They had nothing. No infrastructure, only a few people. It’s hard to imagine given what Amazon is today. But they just started taking orders, then they would order the book themselves from the distributors and ship it to the customer once they got it. The existing brick and mortar bookstores didn’t see them as a treat become who would want to ever buy books online. That was just crazy. By the time these stores started to realise Amazon was onto something it was too late. Amazon was already well on it’s way to becoming ‘the everything store’ it is today.

The rise of Google is obviously included since they were one of the first to really crack making money to sustain a proper business online. What’s funny is that the idea for Google Ads was pretty much just copied from another company, a company that nobody will likely remember the name of today. That’s not to say Google didn’t improve once it and really make it into the backbone of their business. They took the idea and made it better, a lot better, and from that it proved that it was possible to sustain businesses online.

There are lots of stories like these through the book which were thoroughly enjoyable to read about. The rise of Facebook was another interesting story. The part I found the most interesting was about how Mark Zuckerberg didn’t really see Facebook as a winner from the start. He was spending time on other ideas to see if they would work.

Ultimately it was advice from others that made him finally see Facebook for what it could become and shift all his focus to it. This is a theme seen a few times in the book. He touches on how the rise of mobile and the rise of social were tied together and fed off each other to allow both to become the monsters they are today.

Overall the book the is a great read and gives lots of insight into how the internet and web got to be what you see today. I’d highly recommend it to anyone.

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