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ViolaWWW, first developed in the early 1990s, for Unix and the X Windowing System[1], was the first popular WWW web browser (though to a limited audience) which, until Mosaic, was the most frequently used web browser for access to the World Wide Web.



Gillies and Cailliau in How the Web was Born offer an extensive history of the development of Viola. Viola was the invention of Pei-Yuan Wei, who at the time was a student at the University of California, Berkeley.


His interest in graphically based software began with HyperCard which he first discovered in 1989. Gillies and Cailliau quote Pei-Yuan Wei on this discovery: "HyperCard was very compelling back then, you know graphically, this hyperlink thing, it was just not very global and it only worked on Mac...and I didn't even have a Mac" (p.213). Only having access to X terminals, he (in 1990) created the first version of Viola for them: "I got a HyperCard manual and looked at it and just basically took the concepts and implemented them in X-windows[sic]" (p.213).

Viola 0.8

He released Viola 0.8 in 1991, and then after graduating began to develop Viola even further while working with "Berkeley's Experimental Computing Facility" as well as at a few start ups (p.213).

The World Wide Web

At this time, as Gillies and Cailliau indicate, Pei Wei's major goal was to create a version of Viola for the Internet:

what Pei Wei wanted to do next was run it over the Internet. X-Window [sic] was a Unix-based system so it had TCP/IP built in and the Internet was a logical step. The question was how to transport his Viola pages across the Internet. He was on the verge of an independent invention of networked hypertext. 'And that's when I read Tim's e-mail about the World Wide Web' he explains 'The URL was very, very clever, it was perfectly what I needed. He dropped Tim a line saying that he was thinking of writing a browser for X. 'Sounds like a good idea,' said Tim in a reply posted to www-talk on 9 December. Four Days later, Pei Wei told www-talk that he had made a browser" (p.214).


Created in 1992, it was the first browser to use authoring technology such as embedded scriptable objects, stylesheets, and tables. According to Gillies and Cailliau "Viola was to become the first X-browser to make any impact, but even his early versions went down well at CERN...As this ViolaWWW developed, it was to set the standard for everything to follow it..." (p.214). Ed Kroll also highlighted it in his popular 1992 text, Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog.


As ViolaWWW developed, it began to look more like HyperCard:

It had a bookmark facility so that you could keep track of your favourite pages. It had buttons for going backwards and forwards and a history feature to keep track of the places you had been. As time went on, it acquired tables and graphics and by May 1993 it could even run programs." (p.214).


It was based on the Viola toolkit, which is a tool for the development and support of visual interactive media applications, with a multimedia web browser being a possible application. Viola ran under the X Window System and could be used to build complex hypermedia applications that were beyond HTML 3.0 (the latest version of HTML at that time).

Ahead of its time

Viola was interesting because it was the first web browser to have the following features:

  • client-side document insertion, predating frames, or syndication via javascript output writing, which are used commonly today.
Viola-style document embedding Object method
<INSERT SRC="a_quote.html">
<object type="text/html" data="a_quote.html">
<p>This text will appear 
for browsers that don't 
support OBJECTs</p>
  • a simple stylesheet mechanism used for inserting style information such as fonts, color and alignments into a document. This was implemented in Viola well before CSS was developed in 1998:
A viola-style stylesheet A CSS stylesheet
 (BODY,INPUT,P   FGColor=black 

 (H1             FGColor=white 

 body, input, p { 
  color: black;
  background-color: #707070;
  text-align: left;

 h1 {
  color: white;
  background-color: red;
  border: solid 1px black;
  text-align: center;
  • a sidebar panel used for displaying "meta" information, intra document navigational links, and other information, similar to (but not as sophisticated as) features found in several modern browsers.
  • a scripting language that can be accessed from an HTML document, such that an HTML document can embed highly interactive scripts/applets. This can be seen as the precursor to JavaScript and embedded objects.
ViolaWWW method JavaScript equivalent
\class {txtDisp} 
\name {showTime} 
\script { switch (arg[0]) { 
  case "tick": 
    set("content"), date()); 
    after(1000, self(), "tick"); 
    return; break; 
  case "init": 
    after(1000, self(), "tick"); 
\width {100} 
\height {50} \
function showTimeInDoc() {
  var theTime = 
  var tDate = new Date();
   + ":" + tDate.getMinutes() 
   + ":" + tDate.getSeconds();
Embedding a script into a web page
<P>And, the time now is: 
<LINK REL="viola" 

  <script type="text/javascript" 
  <body onload="showTimeInDoc()">
    <p id="theTime"> </p>


While ViolaWWW opened the door to the World Wide Web, its limitations (including the fact that it was only used on X Window System) could not compete with Mosaic, the browser which brought the world wide web into the mainstream [1]. According to Freedman in the Computer Desktop Encyclopedia, "Mosaic was 'the' application that caused interest in the World Wide Web to explode. Originally developed for UNIX, it was soon ported to Windows" (p. 629).

Microsoft v. Eolas and ViolaWWW prior art

Because of ViolaWWW, Microsoft was allowed a retrial in February 2005 in the Microsoft v. Eolas case. The original ruling would have cost software giant Microsoft $521 million in damages. Eolas Technologies and the University of California sued Microsoft for allegedly infringing patents with the Internet Explorer web browser. The case revolved around a patent held by Eolas and the University which claims to cover ways of making other software work seamlessly with web browsers.

Microsoft had wanted to show the court ViolaWWW as prior art, since it was created in 1993 at the University of California, a year before the patent was filed. Microsoft had also suggested that Michael David Doyle, the founder of Eolas' and a former University of California researcher, had intentionally concealed his knowledge of ViolaWWW when filing the patent claim.

See also


  • Freedman, Alan. Computer Desktop Encyclopedia, 9th Edition. New York: Osborne, 2001.
  • Gillies, James & Robert Cailliau. How the Web was born: The Story of the World Wide Web. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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