Weblogs: Web Standards

Obituary: Netscape Communications Corporation

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Netscape Communications Corporation
April 1994 - 15 July 2003

Netscape Communications Corporation was the jewel in the crown of dot.com companies. It completely dominated the browser market in the explosive growth era of the World Wide Web. Microsoft's entrance on the Web and its will to dominate slowly eroded Netscape's successes. Netscape was a victim of Microsoft's Operating System monopoly and it never recovered from this ferocious and largely illegal onslaught. Netscape was already in severe decline when it was bought by AOL in 1998, and finally succumbed on the 15th July 2003.

Netscape Communications will be remembered for introducing the graphical World Wide Web to the public. Their first browser, Netscape Navigator 1.0 was an enhanced version of Mosaic - the first graphical browser. Netscape's innovation won it many admirers and hence its dominance as the browser of choice for the online world.

Netscape's business model initially revolved around selling both the browser and server software - capable of delivering a complete web based system. It was only Microsoft's attempt to sieze control by releasing Internet Explorer as a freely downloadable browser that Netscape made their browser free from download.

At the height of its popularity Netscape Navigator was available on 26 different platforms - certainly unprecedented at the time.

Netscape's server offerings never became as widespread. Although they held a respectable share of the market, they were never offering serious competition to Apache. Since their business depended on income generated by the server software, and Microsoft effectively ended their ability to charge for browser licensing, Netscape was at the start of a rocky road.

Netscape 4 was a landmark browser, one of Netscape Communication's highest points. It entered the browser war battle on equal footing with Internet Explorer 4. Unfortunately, Netscape couldn't keep the creative juices and standards compliance going, and so Netscape 4 lost out to better versions of Internet Explorer 4 and 5. The ebb against Netscape was growing, and within a few months, it was Microsoft who had the majority share of the browser market.

In January 1998 Netscape gave up trying to evolve Netscape 4 into Netscape 5, and opted to create a new Netscape browser from scratch, using Open Source and being developed around web standards. This marked the pinnacle of Netscape's success, and also forewarned its demise. By spinning off the Open Source Mozilla into a separate entity, Netscape revolutionised and energised the browser market. It was a brave and benevolent move.

A mere nine months after the Mozilla project was announced, Netscape was bought by AOL for $4.2 billion. Looking back, AOL didn't buy Netscape for its products, but for the rights to sue Microsoft for anti-competitive monopolistic practices - leveraging the Operating System as a means to win the browser market.

The long drawn-out saga between AOL/Netscape and Microsoft lasted longer than the prolonged development of the Mozilla browser. Four years in the making, Mozilla 1.0 was released to the general public on June 5, 2002.

The dichotomy of the Internet Explorer-dependant AOL and its Mozilla-supporting subsidiary has been a source of much debate. Thankfully this issue has been clarified by the creation of the Mozilla Foundation, sponsored by AOL and Mitch Kapor (of Chandler and OSAF fame). This means that Mozilla is here to stay.

Netscape Communication leaves us with the legacy of the World Wide Web, and the fully-fledged standards compliant open source browser, and the nightmare that is Netscape Navigator 4. One positive benefit of the closure of Netscape Communication is that it finally declares the end of the Navigator 4 browser.

On reflection, only Mozilla Phoenix/Firebird has impressed me as much as Netscape Navigator 3.0. Navigator 3.0 was a superb browser, even by today's standards it is an exceptional browser. Websites created using webstandards work perfectly well in this browser.

Netscape is dead. Long live Mozilla.

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