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R.I.P. Netscape (1994-2008)

As the final days of the once venerable Netscape browser come to a close, it's a good to time to eulogize Netscape, to remember and to learn from its triumph and from its tragedy.

Though I haven't used an actual Netscape-branded browser in years, I have continued to benefit from Netscape's legacy -- we all have. Netscape, in a real sense, enabled the modern Web experience; it is also Netscape that helped to define modern open source software.

Netscape is also the poster child for a technology that has always been clearly needed, but a technology that has always struggled with its business model.

Tim Berners-Lee may have created the World Wide Web, but without Marc Andreessen's Netscape, the Web wasn't particularly usable or accessible. When Netscape burst onto the scene in 1994, the Netscape browser was a revolutionary technology, unlocking the Internet for content, commerce and collaboration.

Practically from its inception, the browser, rather than alternative technologies, has been the cornerstone of the modern Internet experience. For that we have Netscape to thank.

Netscape also directly influenced far wider market conditions. For instance, Netscape fueled an era of irrational exuberance with its stellar IPO in 1995, kicking off the dot-com era.

In its first few years of existence, Netscape became the dominant browser on Earth. The fact that Netscape was free certainly contributed to its pervasiveness, but it also created an expectation that has since never changed. We all expect our browsers to be free (as in zero-cost), because they have always been that way.

Therein lies one of the great weaknesses of Netscape: It was never the huge moneymaker that it could have been. For the most part, Netscape did not directly monetize its browser users and Netscape's value was based in large part just on the fact that it was an extremely popular technology.

Microsoft, meanwhile, realized was that browser technology was an important strategic technology, if not necessarily a valuable stand-alone commercial technology.

With Windows 98, Microsoft aggressively made its Internet Explorer a feature of the operating system. Ultimately, as we all know, Microsoft's browser integration was deemed to be a violation of antitrust laws -- but only long after Netscape's market share had dwindled into insignificance.

Netscape after 1998 never recovered its browser lead. Users who had left Netscape to use IE could not be bothered to switch back. For those that had first used the Internet by clicking on the blue "E," Internet Explorer was the Internet.

Was there anything that Netscape really could have done to ward off Microsoft? Well, I think that the acquisition by AOL for $4.2 billion in 1998 offered a ray of hope.

AOL, at that point of course, was still a walled garden and arguably the largest ISP in the nation. Had AOL been more aggressive at standardizing its entire user base on Netscape alone, perhaps things might have gone differently.


Next page: Mozilla, Firefox and the Netscape legacy.