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Tales In Tech History: Netscape Navigator

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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Netscape Navigator was the dominant web browser in the 1990s, before Microsoft opted to join the party

Netscape Navigator was the dominant web browser of the 1990s as the Internet emerged from academic roots to become an indispensable business tool.

But success bred competition from the likes of Microsoft, which initially had been reluctant to embrace the Web.

Redmond ruthlessly saw an opportunity and bundled its own browser, Internet Explorer, free of charge with the Windows 95 operating system, in a move that eventually proved to be the undoing of Netscape.

Netscape Navigator

Netscape came about when two men, Silicon Graphics founder Jim Clark and university graduate Marc Andreessen teamed up and decided to create Mosaic Communications in mid 1994. Mosaic was later renamed to Netscape Communications.

netscapeThis was at a time when the takeup of the Internet was in its early stages, but both Andreessen and Clark realised the potentially of web browser software, and Clark provided the initial seed funding. What started off as a university software project was soon launched to the general public as a fully fledged web browser.

Netscape rapidly achieved success and soon enjoyed an overwhelming market share, with some observers stating it had an 80 percent market share thanks to its promotion by both Internet Service Providers and magazine publishers.

It is worth remembering however that 1996 was the start of the Internet craze, and only about 1 percent of the world was even online. Even worse connection speeds were painfully slow (musical dial up modems anyone?), and there were relatively few websites to choose from.

Despite that trouble was brewing in Washington State.

In Redmond, Microsoft boss Bill Gates had been taken unawares by the Internet’s growing acceptance among consumers and businesses.

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Browser Wars

But things changed with the launch of Windows 95 in August 1995, which signalled the start of the browser wars.

In that new operating system, Microsoft included its own web browser (Internet Explorer) in an effort to challenge Netscape’s domination. The move was highly controversial, as Microsoft bundled IE with Windows 95, free of charge, unlike Netscape Navigator.

Slowly but surely this approach allowed Internet Explorer to reel in Netscape’s lead, and by the fourth generations of both browsers, Internet Explorer was technologically matching Netscape’s browser.

During this time Netscape Corp was acquired by AOL, which failed to maintain Netscape Navigator’s history of rapid technical innovation.

In an attempt to halt its decline the Netscape browser was made free of charge in 1998, but the writing was on the wall, and by 2002 it had almost a non-existent market share. Netscape Navigator 9 was eventually killed off officially in 2007 and 2008 by AOL.

Aftermath

The calculated move by Microsoft to bundle a free browser in Windows 95 caused outrage among many industry observers at the time for setting a dangerous precedent.

NetscapeAfter all, Microsoft could then decide to bundle database software, or any software it choose, free of charge in future windows releases, if it deemed it was a market it wanted to dominate.

And the decision caused Microsoft no end of trouble at the time.

Indeed, the business demise of Netscape was a central plank in Microsoft’s antitrust trial that began in May 1998 and lasted until June 2001.

Microsoft was accused of becoming a monopoly and engaging in abusive practices contrary to the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. The bundling of IE with Windows meant that every Windows user had access to a free web browser.

Microsoft’s conduct with ‘restrictive licensing agreements with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)’ also came under the spotlight during the court case.

Bill Gates was grilled by the court and his arguing over the definitions of words such as “compete”, “concerned”, “ask”, and “we”, as well as frequent use of “I don’t recall”, led some observers to conclude he was being evasive and non-responsive.

The court eventually ruled against Microsoft and threatened to break up the company. Redmond appealed and eventually in November 2001, both Microsoft and the DoJ reach a settlement, but many felt at the time the settlement deal was a mere slap on the wrist for the software giant.

Netscape after all was dead and buried by the browser war.

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