The first Web browser, WorldWideWeb, was created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1991. The following year, a young college student invented a browser of his own. Perry Wei built ViolaWWW at the University of California, Berkeley, and while his browser was in use for only a short time before Mosaic superseded it, the application launched Wei’s career.
But this story has an unexpected twist. After working for a succession of companies that were later acquired, Wei decided he’d had enough with corporate life. Today he’s doing something many of us admire, but few manage to achieve: taking a break. And so Wei’s career has a touch of the bittersweet. There’s the wealth and fame he might have had if his timing had been more fortuitous. The Web back in 1992 was so new that even venture capitalists didn’t see its value.
But in talking to Wei, you also get that sense of contentment that comes from someone who has departed, at least for a time, from the “rat race.” When I spoke with him by phone, Wei was packing for the other place he calls home: Taiwan. He was looking forward to the trip.
- You were born in Taiwan and came to the United States at 11. Is English your second language?
It’s my third language ― I’m Taiwanese, which we speak at home. At school we spoke Mandarin. Then English. Luckily I came here early enough in my life where I could master the language. My dad said I didn’t have to go to school in Taiwan anymore, because we’re moving to Berkeley in America. I think I said: "America! Berkeley? Where's that?" He gave me a dictionary and told me to start by memorizing it starting with “A” and I got tired by “O.” But it wasn’t a problem: I passed proficiency tests in the seventh grade ― it only took a year or two.
- At the University of California, Berkeley, you did something that made you a part of the history of the Web: you created one of the first browsers. How did that happen?
I got started in computing because of video games. In junior high, there were these Commodore PET computers. To me, they were like magic, and I started thinking about making games for them. I got some books and made my own version of Frogger, the arcade game. The game got me a creative award, and I got to shake hands with the Berkeley mayor. I was just 15. When I got to college, I wanted to keep messing with computers, and I got interested in languages and graphics. I was especially interested in making it easier for people to create new applications.
On campus, there’s a group called the eXperimental Computing Facility, where computer science-minded students hang out. When I was there, half the kids in that group were not computer science majors, but people interested in doing their own projects--for fun, not for academic credit. I was one of them. I wanted to work on a project that was part language, part toolkit, which you could use to make more programs. They gave me an account, and I started working on this thing called Viola―Visually Interactive Object-oriented Language Application.
- At this point, you were thinking of Viola as strictly a graphics program.
But I was also thinking about networked computers. In high school, we had Commodores and Apples, all unconnected. They were little islands. But at Berkeley, all the computers were networked, and that was a very big part of my inspiration. My idea was that it shouldn’t matter what kind of computer you were on. I wanted to design something that was generalized and network-portable. It’s the same idea that later appeared with Java applets, which bounce around the network and are not tied to a particular architecture.
Around this time, I read an article by Tim Berners-Lee talking about the World Wide Web. The Web, Gopher and WAIS were, at that point, the three nascent information systems on the Internet. But even then it was obvious that the Web made a lot of sense because of the idea of the URL is so concise and clean, and the HTML is a very flexible and extensible way to represent data.
- So the Web existed, but only in its embryonic form.
That’s right. HTML at that time was just text; it had no graphics. I could download and run the text based browser called "WorldWideWeb." All the links had a number next to it. To follow the link, you’d type in the number, press “enter,” and that would take you to the next page. It was written for VMS and UNIX. By this time, Tim had created a browser for the NeXTSTEP operating system, but because I did not have a NeXT workstation available to me, my introduction to the web was through a text line mode browser.
I had written a graphical toolkit, a language, and was now looking for a network application. So I used Viola to prototype a browser, which became ViolaWWW. It was used at CERN, the birthplace of the World Wide Web, for about a year or so. There was another browser called Erwise by a group of Finnish students, MidasWWW by Tony Johnson, and Cello from Thomas R. Bruce―all preceding Mosaic.
I got a job at O’Reilly Assoc. working on their project, and I still got to work on Viola. We went to Sun looking for funding for Viola, but they had none. We went to a venture capital firm, who asked questions like: “What is this Web thing? “How big is the market?” “How many Web servers are there?” “Sorry, thanks but no thanks."
- The Web’
s potential seems so obvious now. It’ s interesting that they couldn’ t see it.
These are supposedly the most savvy business people in the world, but the person making the case to them was a 22-year old kid. But to be fair, the Web was still in its early stages, and it took some imagination to see where the Web could go. In the early days, it wasn’t clear how to successfully monetize many of these Web-related ventures. In fact, until recently, with clear revenue tie-ins to mobile devices, most browser makers probably did not profit much from selling the browser software directly: users don’t purchase a browser from Microsoft or Apple, yet the browser has become an absolutely essential part of the platforms. So there’s great value for companies maintaining control over the browser, but the exact value is hard to calculate.
- So you were very early. Do you have any regrets that you didn’
t become the Mozilla of computing?
It would have been nicer if I had succeeded in starting one of these companies. But it is what it is. Looking back, I think the Web took off slowly. All these cool technologies, like scripting and applets that we now think of as part of the Web didn’t really take root immediately. There were at least five years where not much happened, and then, it was like the technological equivalent of the Cambrian explosion.
- And what about the Internet looking forward? What’
I wish I knew. People are always talking about networks getting more intelligent. There’s a science fiction version of that, where the AI machines are the masters of the network, and the poor humans are in danger of being marginalized. In real life, of course, we humans are still in control--but we’re still looking for help in navigating this monster of a network we’ve created that is growing at an exponential rate. We will have no choice but to develop AI of sorts to manage this information. The semantic web would lead to some sort of intelligent, knowledge-processing agents.
- Tell me about your career after college.
I went to O’Reilly and Associates, where I did a lot of Viola work, then Global Network Navigator, which was bought by AOL--so I ended up at AOL for a year. Then I worked for the Internet Archives, which spun off Alexa, a service that archives the World Wide Web. That sold to Amazon, although I had left the company by that time. Then I went to Palm Computing and worked on the wireless browser. When Palm later split into two companies, I stayed with the software-centric side of the company, PalmSource, then after some years, I left to join ACCESS. A year or so later, ACCESS bought PalmSource, so I was happily reunited with my former coworkers from PalmSource. Then, about two years ago, I was burning out--so I quit the job and decide to take some time off.
I went back to Taiwan, set up a home there, and traveled around the island. It was a lot of fun because I had left when I was so young--so long ago that, to me, Taiwan seems a foreign country. So now, it’s both like going back to my roots and yet seeing a fresh new country.
- How does Taiwan compare technologically with the United States?
The Taiwanese technology sector is very competent, having very successfully served as OEM for many American companies. But I feel perhaps they don’t have the confidence to market their own brands aggressively. Something like 80 percent of the world's laptops are made by Taiwanese companies, 90 percent of motherboards, as well as also very high percentages of other IT products. So the skill is there, as is the technology and the manufacturing ability.
- Do you think you could help change that?
Me personally? I have some ideas but we'll see. I just want to see the American technology sector healthy and vibrant, with good and just intellectual property rights protected worldwide. And I’d like to see Taiwan continue to play a symbiotic role in the industry. Taiwan has a lot more potential than people realize. It’s a tiny country with many political constraints, and yet it is pretty impressive for what it has done and can do.
- By Asian standards, the idea of quitting in mid-career and voluntarily not working for two years is a “foreign” concept.
I know ? it’s foreign even to many Americans. Some of my friends think I’m nuts.
- What do you tell them?
I tell them that if you have the luxury of doing what you want in life, then you should do it. And so some think I’m too idealistic. Especially the Japanese and the Taiwanese might wonder why I would leave these cushy jobs. I said that I was bored, and want to go do things that I want to do. So I do them.
- What are your days like now?
I travel, work on some personal projects and catch up on reading. I spend a few months in Taiwan and then come back for a couple of months, and then I go to France or England. But mostly I try to spend the time in Taiwan, while I can. I have a lot of friends there who I hang out with. I drive around the country and explore. I go to some little island and find someone named Wei--who turns out to be one of my relatives. That kind of thing isn’t going to happen in the states. I was just in Japan before the earthquake. But wherever I am, I am still working on my own projects. It’s nice to have all that freedom.
- Is this a hiatus, or permanent?
I don’t know. It could go either way. I still get job offers, and tempting as some of them are, I'm happy where I am at, for now. Maybe when I get married, I’ll return to the workforce. Or, maybe one of my projects will turn out well, and I can finally do something for myself. But I think if you can do what you want to do and make a living out of it, that’s perfect.