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R.I.P. Netscape


Netscape, the Web browser that opened up not only the Web, but the entire Internet to mass use, is dead. It died after a long decline caused by its murderer, Microsofts Internet Explorer.

It was only 15 years ago that only a handful of nerds knew about the Internet and the Web. Even after CIX (Commercial Internet Exchange) opened up the Internet for business in 1991, only the kinds of people who now use Linux were using the Internet.

Then, two graduate students at the NCSA (National Center for Supercomputing Applications), Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, created the first easy-to-use Web browser, Mosaic, in early 1993. It wasnt that easy to install, though. In 1994, for example, I wrote a how-to feature on installing Mosaic.

While I was writing that story, Andreessen was busy making it outdated. He got together with venture capitalist Jim Clark to create a company, briefly called Mosaic Communications, but which quickly changed its name, and the name of its browser, to one all early Internet users know: Netscape.

In October 1994, Netscape released Mosaic Netscape 0.9 and the Internet would never be the same. Anyone could install this browser on almost any operating system. Within months, the Internet we now know and use every day was springing into existence. Thanks to Netscape innovations, the static Web site was quickly augmented by RSS feeds and dynamic JavaScript-powered Web pages.

When Netscape entered the stock market in 1995, any idea that the Web was simply the newest technology toy was dispelled by eager stock buyers who pushed Netscapes stock up to near-record first-day highs. Fueled by endless hunger for Internet access, Netscape went from a startup to a billion dollar company at a rate that was unthinkable to the pre-Internet stock market.

In the meantime, Microsoft, which had dismissed the Internet as a fad, was caught flat-footed. Now, Microsoft would like us to forget that it was never an Internet innovator, but has always been playing catch-up. If you doubt me, find a first edition of Bill Gates book “The Road Ahead.” Of more than 300 pages on the future of computing, only about nine even touch on the Internet and the Web.

Microsoft finally decided it had to get on the Internet or it would be as relevant as a buggy-whip manufacturer after Ford produced the Model T. Its response was to release Internet Explorer 1.0, which was based on the Spyglass variant of Mosaic.

With Netscape owning 80 percent of the Web browser market, Microsoft decided it was time for drastic action. First, it would make IE free, and second it would start bundling it with its new operating system, Windows 95. At the same time, Microsoft would strong-arm PC vendors into putting the new operating system and its browser on all their PCs.

Clearly, Microsoft hoped that by using its monopoly powers it would accomplish two things. The first was to destroy Netscape, and the other was to avoid to paying Spyglass for IE. You see, Spyglass had foolishly signed a contract guaranteeing the company revenue from IE sales. Microsoft claimed that since IE was both free and part of the operating system, it didnt owe Spyglass a dime of continuing revenue.

Both Netscape and Spyglass sued Microsoft. Both won. Neither company exists today.

To start with the lesser-known story, Spyglass won $8 million for its troubles in 1997. IE may have been worth a bit more than that, dont you think?

As for Netscape, it also took Microsoft to court. A direct result of this action was the Department of Justice investigation of Microsoft on antitrust grounds. In the end, Netscape “won,” but it was too late. In 1999, after Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled that Microsoft had acted as an illegal monopoly, then-California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said, “One of the tragedies of the last few years is that Netscape, arguably the most innovative company on the planet, was basically crushed by the actions of Microsoft.”

He was right. Netscape staggered on, but it had been fatally wounded. It tried open-sourcing its code under what would become the Mozilla Public License. From this effort, Internet Explorers current strongest rival, Firefox, would spring, but that took years and it was too little, too late for Netscape.

The company would end up in AOLs hands, where it would slowly expire. The wounds Microsoft had inflicted on Netscape had fatally injured it. On Feb. 1, 2008, AOL will stop supporting the Netscape Navigator Web browser.

Almost no one will notice. Few people use Netscape now. I doubt that Microsoft executives will hold a party for its final victory. After all, to this day, Microsoft, with its 21st-century ally, the Department of Justice, is struggling to get out from underneath its slap-on-the-wrist settlement agreement. Netscape will go to its grave, unmourned, while Microsoft, the loser, will continue to make its billions while plotting on how to crush its 21st century open-source rivals.

A version of this story was first published in eWEEK.

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