Netscape's story reads like a proper fairy tale: takeovers, fierce and hostile competition, split-ups, a giant payout and even a dragon! While Netscape may now only be a sweet, sweet memory to those who used it to first discover the web, the browser's monstrous impact has cemented it as one of the first and most important startups to shape the internet. Netscape's founders successfully plucked a brilliant idea from academia and pushed it onto the world's stage at a time when competition didn't exist, websites were not much more than plain-text blurbs and inline images were still revolutionary. Consider the battle that would ensue between this web pioneer and Microsoft. The "browser wars," as they came to be known, would ultimately lead to creation of Internet Explorer, Microsoft's antitrust suit and the formation of the Mozilla Project and Firefox.
Netscape was born the child of University of Illinois graduate Marc Andreessen and Silicon Graphics' Jim Clark. Andreessen had spent some of his time at university working on the NCSA (National Center for Supercomputing Applications) Mosaic browser and understood full well the potential it offered. With Clark's help, the two created Mosaic Communications Corporation in April 1994, pulling in many former SGI and NCSA employees. The team then churned out the first point release in October of that year: Mosaic Netscape release 0.9. By the end of December, the company underwent a significant transformation, adopting the name Netscape Communications and launching Netscape Navigator 1.0.
Jim Clark (left) with Marc Andreessen.
The company launched Netscape Navigator into the market without even a glimmer of real competition and the browser went on to become the de facto portal to the web in early 1995. Of course, Microsoft was working feverishly in the background to play catch-up with a browser of its own creation, licensing Mosaic's tech to build the first iteration of Internet Explorer.
On August 9th of that year, the then roughly 1-year-old Netscape went public with its initial stock offering at $28 per share. By close of day, the company's valuation skyrocketed to nearly $3 billion. It was around this time that Microsoft was preparing to release Windows 95 and a separate add-on pack: Windows 95 Plus! Pack, which included Internet Explorer 1.0 and TCP/IP, the protocol needed to use the web. At last, Microsoft had arrived with its first effort at a Netscape killer.
The company launched Netscape Navigator into the market without even a glimmer of real competition and the browser went on to become the de facto portal to the web in early 1995.
Netscape and Internet Explorer traded releases in lockstep throughout 1995 and 1996, but by the time Internet Explorer version 3.0 was released, Microsoft had fully caught up and was able to match Netscape feature-for-feature. In an attempt to differentiate from its IE rival and grow its user base, Netscape took a stab at the enterprise crowd and launched the Netscape Communicator 4.0 bundle in late 1996. Communicator added in a Usenet client, web editor, e-mail app and even an address book; in short, it quite handily defined the very early days of sales- and management-driven bloatware. The move, however, failed to gain much traction with the suit-and-tie set.
Netscape's browser icon through the years.
Netscape continued to develop both Netscape Navigator 3.0 and Communicator 4.0, but the looming threat of Internet Explorer, with version 3 bundled into Windows 95 service release 2, still lingered heavily in the background. The rivalry was compounded even further when Microsoft's browser team apparently dropped its massive IE logo off at Netscape's campus the night of Internet Explorer 4's launch. The Netscape crew understandably took issue with the slight and toppled the giant IE logo over, placing its Mozilla dragon mascot atop it and holding a sign that read "Netscape 72 Microsoft 18."
In January 1998, Netscape announced its intention to release the source code for Netscape Communicator to the public; a move that gave rise to the Mozilla Organization. Unfortunately for Netscape, this also had the effect of stalling development on its browser platform through much of that year, essentially giving Microsoft the lead it needed. And that summer, Internet Explorer finally overtook Netscape as the most used browser, a mantle Netscape was never able to win back.
Netscape responds to Microsoft's prank by putting its mascot atop a toppled Internet Explorer logo.
The company, however, was far from being completely wiped out: AOL recognized some value in the struggling company and purchased it in November 1998 for a whopping $4.2 billion. The acquisition did nothing to spur development efforts though, and it wouldn't be until April of 2000 that preview versions of Netscape 6, based on Mozilla code, saw the light of day. A further two years later, Netscape 7 was released, serving as the last major build version to come from that source code.
AOL recognized some value in the struggling company and purchased it in November 1998 for a whopping $4.2 billion.
Not long after, AOL shuttered the Netscape department and laid off most of the staff in 2003, opting instead to continue development in-house with Mozilla's Firefox as its code base. The once proud web app was also re-branded as Netscape Browser and AOL eventually outsourced successive releases to Mercurial Communications, a Canadian software developer. Mercurial babysat and pushed out versions 8 through 8.1 of the Netscape Browser between 2005 and 2007 to a public that largely didn't care any longer. And, in a sad final gasp, AOL cobbled together a dev team to push out Netscape Navigator 9, its first internally built browser effort since version 7. Its release would signal the end of Netscape the browser, as AOL pulled the plug on it in February of 2008.
While Netscape didn't stand the test of time quite like its chief rival Internet Explorer has, its open-source transition into Mozilla did eventually birth Firefox -- a browser success story in and of itself. But Netscape's precipitous rise and fall in those early internet days wasn't without lasting effects: Its brief stint at the top and tense rivalry with Microsoft laid much of the groundwork for innovation in the browsing space.
[Image Credit: Associated Press; snafu.de]