Tech

What happened to Netscape?

The Internet used to be a very different being than it is today. It would be unrecognizable to most, mostly consisting of bulletin board systems with no media except for a few low resolution embedded images. These systems were disparate and had to be connected to separately.

The Internet has changed dramatically with the advent of the World Wide Web. All of these previously separate systems were connected, but the world needed a way to “view” them – a “web browser” was fine. In April 1994, Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark founded Mosaic Communications Corporation. Mosaic is the name of the software that allowed users to access various content on the Internet. Andreessen worked on the project while at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois.

Clark, formerly of Silicon Graphics, brought along several of his colleagues to work on Mosaic. Similarly, Andreessen brought in several of his NCSA colleagues to work for the company. By October 1994, the team had released Mosaic Netscape 0.9. In December, they renamed the company Netscape Communications and launched version 1.0 of Netscape Navigator.

Like true visionaries, the founders of Netscape knew that the web browser would be a revolutionary tool and set a decisive precedent. Navigator was made available free of charge to individual, academic, and research users.

“By providing Netscape free of charge for personal use, the company continues the tradition of providing free software products for the Internet.” read press release 1994.

“Netscape is the first Internet tool that allows the average user with a 14.4 kbps modem to surf the Internet interactively.”

Commercial users were required to purchase browser licenses for $99 per user, including warranty and customer support, but this did not last long. Similarly, you could find boxed versions of Netscape in retail stores for $40 a copy.

For all practical purposes, Navigator was the only public web browser at the time, so it had a period of virtually zero competition.

On August 9, 1995, Netscape went public with a price of $28 per share. The shares were supposed to be offered at $14 per share, but at the last moment it was decided to double the price. During the first day of trading, the stock rose to $75 per share, reaching a market capitalization of $3 billion, an incredible gain on the first day. Netscape’s IPO marked the beginning of large-scale investments in internet companies that later created the dot-com bubble.

It was a magical time, home computer sales were booming, and if you’re lucky, your computer will be equipped with a dial-up Internet modem. Would you hear scrambling sound your phone line connecting you to the world. We start Netscape and look at the pulsing animation during the loading of one web page.

However, unbeknownst to everyone, Microsoft was working on its own browser. Just days after the initial public offering, Netscape released Windows 95 along with Internet Explorer 1.0. The competition was fierce as the two companies vied with each other for the next year, with Microsoft always being one step behind.

This was until the release of Internet Explorer 3.0 in August 1996. Microsoft has finally caught up with Netscape in terms of browser technology. Slowly but surely, Redmond gained market share, primarily by pre-installing Internet Explorer on every Windows system.

Did you know? The JavaScript (JS) programming language was born at Netscape when they were trying to add interactivity to web pages. JS first appeared with Navigator in September 1995.

Market share of Netscape Navigator: 1994–2007

Netscape continued to work on both the Navigator browser and Communicator, even though the merging and name change continued to confuse users. In early 1998, the company announced plans to release the Communicator source code, prompting the Mozilla open source project that would become Firefox.

Development of the Netscape browser slowed down after the release of its source code, but Microsoft didn’t rest. By the end of 1999, Microsoft had won most of the market. This shift in browser preferences marked the beginning of the long death of Netscape (and eventually Internet Explorer).

By the time Internet Explorer 5.0 was released, it was clear that Microsoft had developed a superior browser. Websites were becoming more and more graphically dense, internet speeds were increasing, but broadband was still a few years away. By comparison, the Netscape browser was buggier, slower, and more prone to crashes.

According to the records of the time, Microsoft was spending over $100 million annually to develop IE in the late 1990s, with over 1,000 people working on it.

By 1998, the former king of the Internet began to flounder. AOL, formerly known as America Online, saw the potential in rescuing the broken browser and shelled out $4.2 billion in a November 1998 buyout. However, the opportunity was lost.

Development of the Navigator/Communicator browser, now called Netscape, was slow. Even with the advances made in the Mozilla project, AOL couldn’t release Netscape 6 until 2000, far behind in the browser war. For another two years, the browser will be in its final agony.

Time to say goodbye

In August 2002 Netscape 7 was released and it was the start of a long goodbye. The following year, AOL closed the Netscape division and laid off most of the staff. Development continued for a couple more years using advances in the Firefox source code, but nothing significant was released under the brand.

In 2005, AOL transferred development responsibility to an outside Canadian company, Mercurial Communications. Mercurial released “Netscape Browser 8” in May 2005. Several iterations took place over the next two years, with version 8.1.3 being the last update released by Mercurial in April 2007.

Like a mother who simply doesn’t want her child to run off to college without a final kiss goodbye, AOL has taken on the challenge of developing in-house once again. He renamed the browser again to Netscape Navigator and launched version 9 in October 2007. AOL then only continued support for a few months before finally letting it go.

On February 20, 2008, the company released the latest version of Netscape Navigator (version 9.0.0.6). The browser has been officially discontinued, and with the help of some tools, you could transfer your data to Flock and Firefox for a while after that.

For the curious, Netscape Navigator 9 is still available online from various archives. However, keep in mind, this is not a navigator of the past. It’s more or less a rebranded Firefox with a Netscape theme. The only thing that makes it different from the browser it’s based on is the “link bar” and mini browser in the sidebar.

If you’re more interested in learning about earlier builds and what it was like to browse the internet in the “old days”, OldVersion.com maintains an archive of stable versions, all the way back on Netscape 1.0, but check compatibility before trying to install something older.

TechSpot series “What’s wrong with…”

The history of software applications and companies that at some point became popular and widely used, but now disappeared. We cover the most important areas of their history, innovations, successes and controversies.


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