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    An ode to the late, great Netscape browser

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2008 First published in Business in Vancouver 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 browser.

    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.

    Designing 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 online commerce. Javascript remains a key technology powering much of what’s called Web 2.0 today. Netscape’s Composer Web page editor pioneered easy-to-use techniques that are now common practice in blogging systems.

    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.
    Netscape’s 1995 decision to go public was the first big Internet IPO. It led to the Internet-powered bull market of the late 1990s.

    Riding high, 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 browser.

    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.
    Along 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.

    After 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. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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