to the late, great Netscape browser
Alan Zisman (c) 2008 First published in Business
March 4-10, 2008; issue 958
High Tech Office column;
Along with the
perhaps doubtful celebration of Microsoft Vista’s first birthday,
another widely overlooked date was the recent death of the Netscape Web
Owner AOL announced that it was ending development of
the one-time market-defining product and would stop releasing security
updates. It encouraged remaining Netscape users to adopt Firefox, a
browser developed by the open source Mozilla project spun off from
Netscape in 1998.
Despite fading from most Internet users’
attention in recent years, Netscape had played an important role in the
growth of the Net. Netscape came about as an effort to commercialize
the pioneering Mosaic browser, originally developed at the University
of Illinois in the early 1990s; the first Netscape version was released
in December 1994, just in time for the explosion of Internet use. By
early 1996, Netscape accounted for over 80% of all Web browser traffic.
Many new websites sported “designed for Netscape” logos.
for Netscape meant adopting a series of new online technologies, many
still widely used. Among them: Web cookies, which allowed sites to
track visitor movements and are widely used in online shopping carts.
Frames, tables and other design techniques allowed better display of
text and images online. SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) is still used for
secure communication between sites and visitors – a necessity for
what’s called Web 2.0 today. Netscape’s Composer Web page editor
pioneered easy-to-use techniques that are now common practice in
While many one-time proprietary Netscape
features are now common to all Web browsers, the need to design Web
pages for specific browsers was unfortunate, resulting in too many
websites that were not universally accessible.
decision to go public was the first big Internet IPO. It led to the
Internet-powered bull market of the late 1990s.
Netscape began to speculate that the growth of the Web was making
traditional operating systems like Microsoft Windows obsolete. While
that vision has not yet come to fruition (though Web-enabled
applications are now, over a decade later, becoming increasingly
common), it put Netscape squarely into Microsoft’s cross-hairs. The
software giant released the first (and poorly regarded) version of its
own browser, Internet Explorer, in August 1995. Microsoft slowly
improved its product and cut into Netscape’s market share by bundling
Explorer with Windows at a time when Netscape was trying to sell its
In 1998, Netscape stopped charging for its browser, set
up the open source Mozilla Foundation and was bought by AOL. By the end
of that year, IE’s market share had surpassed Netscape’s.
Netscape’s user base continued to shrink: by late 2007, it accounted
for less than 1% of browser users.
the way down, however, it still managed to play an important role. It
became the focus of the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust case
against Microsoft. The department charged that Microsoft had used
illegal practices by bundling Internet Explorer with Windows and
pressuring computer manufacturers to keep from pre-installing Netscape.
successfully climbing to the top of the browser heap, Microsoft stopped
developing its Internet Explorer browser. Only more recently has it
been feeling pressure from Mozilla Firefox – ironically, Netscape’s
open source descendant. Microsoft has again begun to take Web browser
development more seriously. IE market share has fallen from a peak of
over 90%. Firefox now accounts for some 16% of North American users and
around 50% in several European countries.
Although AOL has
dropped support for Netscape, if you have a copy (preferable a
relatively recent version) it will still work online. Or if you’re a
nostalgic Firefox user you can find add-ons for that browser to make it
look just like 1996’s Netscape 3.
But even if you don’t go that
far, take a moment to think about Netscape, the browser that was, in
many ways, responsible for the Internet we use today. •