Shall we Gopher it again?
The alternative to the Web has been reborn as an open source project

A couple of months ago I wrote about how the Web was not the only innovative technology to appear on the Internet in the early 1990s. As well as the wide area information servers (Wais) mentioned then, which provided a kind of proto-search engine facility, there were also Gophers.

Named after the mascot of the University of Minnesota, where they were developed, Gophers offered a worldwide web of information, but without the hyperlinks. They achieved this through a series of nested menus - options on one menu led to further menus as well as documents, images etc. Navigation through Gopherspace consisted of "burrowing" ever deeper through these menus.

Gopher was released on 9 September 1991, around the time of the first public availability of the World-Wide Web (which occurred on 19 August 1991).

However, unlike the Web, the Gopher system has an official date of death too. On 1 July 1997 the so-called Mother Gopher that formed the root of the hierarchical menus was turned off by the University of Minnesota.

In part, Gopher's failure in the face of the Web was down to its less glamorous appearance - though many would argue that, compared to the mess that many Web pages present, this was an advantage. More importantly, Gopher was released under a rather restrictive licence, whereas the Web was in the public domain.

Significantly, now that it has been released under the GNU General Public Licence Gopher shows signs of a modest rebirth as an open source project. Although, naturally, Gophers are preferred, there is a Web gateway to its contents, but unfortunately this tends to generate URLs that are unusable for retyping.

This is a pity, since one of the documents a couple of levels down from this opening menu, called a "Gopher Manifesto", makes some interesting points about why they are worth preserving. For example, it notes that by keeping documents "link clean" the hyperlinking part of the information is separated out.

It is also often an advantage to have a minimalist layout, not least because it is standard across all menus. The absence of graphics from the interface speeds navigation considerably, makes things easier for those with visual disabilities, and avoids the need to reformat content for wireless and other platforms.

There is an introduction to the world of Gophers at, and a rather out-of-date survey of Gopher clients and servers (with screenshots) at. A more modern listing of the few Gopher clients still available.

It is striking that the best Windows client is still the one that led the pack five years ago. WSGopher ( home page) can be downloaded free. It is also possible to use older versions of the main browsers, but not the most recent releases. Although Gopher support used to be standard for any self-respecting browser, this has gradually been dropped by both Internet Explorer and Netscape.

For those who really want a trip down memory lane, one solution might be to revert to the last version of Mosaic, the browser that started the stampede to the Web. Version 3 can be downloaded, though I find its Gopher support to be less than perfect.

For those who want to explore Gopher in other browsers (and with time on their hands), there is a comprehensive listing.

If Gopher clients are hard to come by, servers are even more rare (IBM has a free download). It will be interesting to see whether the new open source Gopher movement succeeds in stimulating enough interest in Gopher standards to provoke new client and server projects.

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This was first published in January 2002

 

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