Remembering Netscape

A few people have asked how I feel about the death of Netscape, so thought I’d peck out (still one-handed) a browser evolution brain dump.

Netscape wasn’t the first browser I ever used — Max and I first turned on to the Web at ZiffNet via Cello, and later Spyglass Mosaic. Looking back, it’s almost impossible to imagine an interweb with no corporate presence, no ads, no porn, no spam, and no Internet Explorer. But that was the early web Netscape was born into — flat grey, plain text, blue links, and a few images. And yet, between around 1994 and 1996, Netscape became synonymous with the web itself.

Over the next few years web technology exploded and it was all developers could do to hang on. Netscape brought us background colors and tiles, tables, animated GIFs, frames, layers, and tons of other innovations now considered so fundamental we take them for granted. Netscape even brought us the almighty blink tag (if the word “blink” there isn’t blinking, consider yourself lucky). It seems almost ho-hum in retrospect, but it really was an exciting time. The sky was the limit, the ground was moving fast, the self-publishing door was wide open, and people were coining and abusing phrases like “the internet changes everything.”

For those reminiscing along with me here, bake your noodle on the memory that browsers were not always free. Navigator (and later, Communicator) cost around $30, only being forced to go free on later to respond to IE being free (keep in mind that Microsoft had other revenue streams, Netscape did not). How strange is it that Office still costs money while Explorer doesn’t?

What’s actually surprising is that Netscape held on as long as it did. Navigator has been losing share for a very long time, and Mozilla gets all the non-IE attention anyway. When AOL acquired Netscape, it seemed there might be enough non-IE momentum in the gigantic AOL userbase to re-ignite the browser wars, but that too fizzled when AOL decided to use IE at its core after all.

Let’s face it — Netscape may have innovated dozens of web technologies, but Navigator did not remain the best browser, and many of Netscape’s innovations were rejected by the W3C (e.g. OBJECT was accepted over EMBED, and Netscape’s weird, proprietary LAYER approach was rejected in favor of the much cleaner DIV/CSS model). In fact, Netscape 4.x’s CSS support was so half-baked that it single-handedly delayed broad CSS deployment at probably thousands of organizations for years. I personally excised it from dozens of J -School Macs rather than wrestle with CSS workarounds to accommodate its frustrating brokenness. Netscape 6 looked promising, but was ultimately a dud.

Anyway. The news itself isn’t that exciting — Netscape is already pretty much irrelevant, and has almost become synonymous in developers’ minds with “legacy browser.” Watching Apple choose the little-known KHTML over Mozilla for Safari was emblematic of Netscape’s current lack of relevance (not to mention performance). What’s interesting is that the rise and fall of a great company and such a successful innovator can occur in such a short period of time. That a single product can so fundamentally alter the way we interact with information, and that the creator of that product can be slaughtered in an anticompetitive marketplace with virtual impunity in the course of a few years.

But Mozilla lives on, with a user base that seems to be growing rather than shrinking. If there’s any silver lining here, it’s that Mozilla devs won’t have to compete for attention from Netscape. And while companies like Netscape, who are bound by the profit motive, may fail in the marketplace, open source projects are immune from the wiles of capitalism in its most raw form (though open source has other weaknesses, such as misdirection and ill communication).

Thanks for the good times, Netscape. I’ll never forget the original pulsing purple ‘N’ in Netscape 1.0.

Music: Fila Brazillia :: Freakpower – New Direction

20 Replies to “Remembering Netscape”

  1. Well, I can tell you that the bulk view shows 63% IE and 29% Netscape/Mozilla, but a very large chunk of that 29% is Safari traffic with a Mozilla UA string.

  2. Scot,

    Don’t listen to all that ‘95% of the world uses IE anyway’ crap. It depends on the audience. I work at an academic publisher, so we *still* get 10% NS4 hits on some of our sites. Fortunately, it’s dropping, and Mozilla-derivatives are rising.

  3. And as someone who still prefers Mozilla over Safari (I have this crazy notion that I want my web pages to actually layout properly), I feel its only right to point out that Safari uses Mozilla code (view manager, arguably one of the most complex components of Moz) in addition to the KHTML renderer.

    I have currently been stuck with using Safari on my Mac as middle-click doesn’t work right in Firebird…. But I really am still unimpressed with Safari overall. It’s not a bad browser, but it’s not a great one either. Hopefully, over time, it will become a great one.

    I am also very happy to see more competition in the “alternative browser” field… It can only be good…

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  5. Personally, I like Safari. It is the fastest browser on the Mac indeed, and is well designed. It is not perfect, but it does the job nicely for me.

    >Watching Apple choose the little-known KHTML
    >over Mozilla for Safari was emblematic of
    >Netscape’s current lack of relevance (not to
    >mention performance).

    Actually, the problem was –as an Apple engineer said– that KHTML was easier to handle because it was much smaller than Gecko. They had very little time and they went with the simpler solution, the one that they could get their heads around faster. And KHTML fit the bill better than Gecko a year ago (remember, a year ago Mozilla wasn’t even as cleaned-up as it is today).

    If Apple had to create a new browser today, they might even go with Mozilla. As for speed, they optimized the hell out of KHTML too when they got it in their hands. But a year ago, KHTML was still a better option for what they wanted to do. It was an engineering desision, not a political one against Netscape, IMHO.

  6. Sean, exactly how many sites can you find that don’t render properly in Safar? I haven’t seen *any* since the beta ended over a month ago. Even during the beta period, I’d rather have a faster, cleaner, slicker browser that rendered 99% of sites correctly than the far less elegant and less enjoyable to use Mozilla.

    Eugenia, I don’t mean to imply that apple’s decision was political rather than technical. The KHTML codebase, if I recall correctly, was 1/10th the size of Mozilla. But that’s part of what I mean by irrelevance. Netscape / Mozilla have become bloatware by current standards.

  7. scot – i’ll make a note to track sites that i have to switch browsers for. still happens. still frustrating.
    baald

  8. oh – i remember one: go to honda.com and build yourself a new element. then make sure to follow all the element links you can (all on honda, just can’t rememebr what they’re called). don’t rememebr what the problem was, just that i had to use camino i think. IIRC, IE didn’t fare perfectly either.

  9. I was not able to find any problems at the build & quote part of the element site. Clicked on lots of stuff. But I did find a page at honda that said i had an unsupported browser, but that’s not Safari’s fault.

  10. The only problem I had with Safari 1.0 were:
    1. Crashes when I clean up my cache, 3 out of 5 times.
    2. Crashes when I go to loreal.com
    3. phpMyAdmin does not run any html Forms. When you write an SQL statement and click on Go, nothing happens.
    4. There are still login problems on Hotmail (depends which login screen you get – Konqueror doesn’t have this prob btw)

    But I can happily live with these small probs, Safari does the job well, at least it scrolls and resizes at a respectable speed compared to its Mac browser competition. :D

  11. Hi Eugenia –

    I can’t seem to make it crash when emptying cache or visiting loreal (although it also would not load loreal completely, so yup, there’s a page Safari won’t render.

    I use phpMyAdmin in Safari every day — many times a day — and have not seen problems since the first beta, and that was only when using localhost. Don’t use hotmail, can’t speak to that…

  12. > I can’t seem to make it crash when emptying cache

    It mostly happens when Hotmail is loaded. :D

    > I use phpMyAdmin in Safari every day — many times a day — and have not
    > seen problems since the first beta, and that was only when using
    localhost.

    I load phpMyAdmin from the osnews server (which is on a secure server), I login to the osnews db, I go to the forums table, I tell it to SELECT a comment, I click “Go” and nothing happens. It doesn’t load any page, doesn’t send the form at all. :-) And I can reproduce that on both my powerbook and my Cube.

  13. I remember this a bit differently:

    “For those reminiscing along with me here, bake your noodle on the memory that browsers were not always free. Navigator (and later, Communicator) cost around $30, only being forced to go free on later to respond to IE being free (keep in mind that Microsoft had other revenue streams, Netscape did not).”

    Netscape *kinda* charged, but I don’t know anyone who paid. It was always “free for personal or educational use” and every person (plus most companies) just downloaded and used. (Plus they popularized the “everything’s a beta” fad of the mid-late 90s, so people didn’t really feel the *need* to pay, ’cause we were all still “testing”, right? heh.)

    And the other thing that came out around NS2 and was really in place by NS3 was the idea that Navigator was the public/mindshare piece to build the name and sell their *real* (read: expensive and presumable profitable) product, the Netscape web server. The location bar did (and Phoenix/Firebird still does) show “Netsite” instead of “Location” when you’re visiting a site running off of a Netscape server. (Can’t think of any right now, ha. Maybe sun.com? Not sure, I’m on a Mac right now.) The way I remember it, it was Netscape’s near-freeness that made it impossible for MS to ever *start* charging for IE.

    My history: started browsing with Chameleon, Summer 1995. Moved to FL, no ‘net. Moved back to CA in early 1996, just as you were starting to seee URLs on movie posters and stuff. (Credits for Strange Days has a link to http:\\www.thx.com, IIRC–yes, two *back*slashes.) Started using NS2. People in chatrooms were saying that MSIE (2 at the time) was faster but to me, it sucked. NS3 came out with a few more features and a *much* longer load time–10 seconds vs. 40 or so on my dad’s Win 3.1 486. NS3 didn’t matter much right away because its two biggest strengths–better javascript and plugin support–weren’t that important yet. I stuck with 2.02 for a bit. IE3 came out, decent, but I liked NS3 a lot more–much better right-click menus, for one thing. Got my own w95/P75 and NS3 launched faster on my machine than NS2 did on my dad’s, woo hoo! Then NS4 came out and sucked and IE4 came out and took over the world. I continued to use NS3 until Phoenix 0.2, only launching IE when needed.

    Wanna go on a trip? Shh, don’t tell anyone: Netscape archive is here: http://wp.netscape.com/download/archive.html?cp=dowarc
    Shame they don’t have 1.0, though. It fit on a floppy, perfect for my friend’s tiny ancient laptop.

  14. PS–Scot, nice little site you’ve got here. I first found you when I bought BeOS R3/Intel in early ’98. Didn’t appreciate all the power of the journaling database filesystem back then (*god* I wish every OS had that now) and only wound up playing with it here and there until R5, at which point I pretty much gave up on it due to an ongoing (sure you’ve heard this before) lack of apps. Only had one machine back then so I had to dual-boot, and as long as BeOS didn’t run Photoshop or Netscape (back on topic, heh) I had to stay where I was.

  15. PPS–even bought a $150 SoundBlaster AWE 64 Gold for Be. Ah, those were the days. OK, I’ll stop now. :-)

  16. Brian, I don’t remember anyone actually paying for Netscape either. But it was still officially a product for sale, and there was some revenue there. But you’re right that their server software was the larger cash cow.

    I’d love to find a copy of Netscape 2 for the Mac, but ftp to archive.netscape.com doesn’t connect (URLs on the page you provided). Know of anywhere else to find that?

    You’ve got a memory like a steel trap!

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