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.

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Then again, AOL itself and its walled garden were under massive competitive pressure from access providers of all shapes and sizes.

AOL’s eventual strategy had been to make Netscape an open source effort, fostering innovation and building community with the Mozilla Project. Unfortunately, it was a strategy that took many years to fully bear fruit. It was also a strategy that fundamentally changed what the Netscape browser was all about.

Instead of Netscape remaining a browser technology, Netscape became a browser brand. Instead of Netscape remaining an innovator, it became merely a delivery mechanism for technology that could be had directly from the true technology innovator — Mozilla.

Certainly, the first few Mozilla.org releases were not as polished as what AOL initially made available to its Netscape users. In time, however, Mozilla’s own star shined brighter than Netscape’s.

This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Time and again, the technology market has proven that though brands are important, technology itself is the real brand. It’s a lesson that IBM learned with Microsoft having control of the PC operating system and it’s a lesson Yahoo learned from Google, which had once been the search technology underlying the Yahoo index.

In Mozilla’s case, former Netscape engineers like Brendan Eich, who created JavaScript while at Netscape, continued technology advancement under the Mozilla banner. And with the Firefox browser, both the former Netscape technology and the people who worked on it while at Netscape found another chance to innovate the browser market.

Mozilla’s development came while Internet Explorer lay relatively dormant to improvement, as Microsoft rested on its laurels.

Yet even as Firefox continued to innovate and gain ground against IE, its success never really helped Netscape, though. AOL, while, supportive of Mozilla, did little to further promote and expand the Netscape browser itself even with the renewed technology and enthusiasm behind Firefox.

Had there been some kind of direct correlation between Netscape and Firefox and an energetic, renewed push from AOL, Netscape could very well still live in 2008 and beyond.

Today, the Netscape brand still elicits nostalgia from those who hear the name. For many, Netscape had been their first browser and their first gateway onto the Web. Yet few can deny that while official support for the Netscape browser will end in 2008, Netscape as a technology has been gone a long time.

The heir to its legacy, Mozilla, has learned from the tragedy of its forebear.

Though Firefox is free, the modern Web environment has allowed Mozilla to make millions from the browser, thanks mostly to Google. And as an open source effort, vendors like Google, IBM and Red Hat
have helped to make Firefox a strategic platform for their respective efforts.

By keeping Firefox a profitable, strategic technology, Mozilla may well avoid Netscape’s fate. Ultimately, however, the success or failure of a vendor rests on its technology and its ability to innovate. Netscape sealed its fate when it stopped being a technology vendor and stopped innovating.

Goodbye, Netscape. You were my first, but I’ve moved on, and so has everyone else.

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