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.