Cookie inventor Lou Montulli: I wanted to give the internet a memory

September 7, 2023 | Uncategorized

Lou Montulli’s work is considered groundbreaking for the web technology upon which our current internet is built. Yet, very few people know of the American programmer. Among his most notable developments is a technology we use massively in the digital world every day: cookies.

If you’re not a programmer yourself and haven’t delved deep into the development of web technologies and web browsers, you’ve probably never heard of Lou Montulli. His relatively low level of fame is all the more surprising given that, alongside figures like Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreessen, he is one of only six people to be inducted into the World Wide Web Hall of Fame. It’s high time we introduce this browser pioneer.

Lou Montulli Developed the First Browser

From early on in his life, Montulli identified web browsers as his niche. Together with Michael Grobe and Charles Rezac, he developed the first text-based web browser between 1991 and 1992 at the University of Kansas. While this browser, named “Lynx,” was soon overtaken by graphic-based browsers as we know them today, it’s still used in specialized areas.

The second browser co-developed by Montulli no longer exists. It was the “NCSA Mosaic,” which laid the foundation for modern web browsing in 1994. This free software, later renamed Netscape Navigator, was one of the first to make the most out of the HTML 2.0 web standard. For the first time, websites could incorporate tables with this browser. Over time, more features like frames, scripts, layers, and multimedia elements were added.

But one crucial component was missing: every time you visited a website, it felt like the first time because browsers didn’t have a memory.

Cookies Give Browsers a Digital Memory

One of Netscape’s team’s most critical innovations, led by Montulli, was giving their browser a memory for the internet with cookies. Electronic commerce and many other applications became possible with this new function.

The initial function of cookies was so basic that it seems almost antiquated today: before their first use in 1994, browsers couldn’t recognize if a user had visited a specific website before. Today, this function is so standard that we don’t even notice it.

The American online marketing company DoubleClick, known for pioneering internet advertising by bringing advertisers and online media together, started the first commercial use of cookies in 1996. Google later acquired the company for $3.1 billion, turning it into the Google Marketing Platform.

The development of third-party cookies initiated by DoubleClick not only significantly influenced the digital advertising industry and numerous ad tech companies but also positively impacted the development of free internet, as Montulli explained in an interview:

“Advertisements helped bring the web, based on open standards, into the mainstream, outperforming closed systems like AOL and MSN; in this regard, they can be viewed positively.”

However, a downside was the failure to find and establish alternative financing models for content-oriented websites. This ultimately led to intense competition for users’ attention, as this was the only way to achieve the desired and necessary advertising revenues.

What does the Future of Cookies Look Like?

Montulli, the cookie inventor, also commented on this. The basic principle of third-party cookies, i.e., providing data for targeted advertising, will likely continue in the future. However, users’ privacy protection will play a much more significant role.

How exactly this will look is still unclear. One approach might be the subsequent anonymization of data, making it impossible to trace back to individuals. At the same time, Montulli urges the development of further monetization models for content-based websites: “We should look for better ways to pay for content.”

Ultimately, the goal is also to save quality journalism, which plays a vital role in our society with its information. Technologies must work together to strike a balance between companies’ commercial interests and users’ privacy.

This balance is precisely what Usercentrics Data Shield is about. As long as there are no alternative financing models for vital content that work without advertising, we must intensively deal with privacy protection. Making this reliable and convenient is our concern.