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Netscape

Net­scape was a company which produced the most popular web browser of the second half of the 1990s: Net­scape Nav­i­ga­tor. This was the first browser I ever used as a kid, on my dad’s workstation which ran Solaris, before we switched over to Mozilla Suite (which was basically Net­scape’s successor). Net­scape was one of the two major players in the First Browser War, in which it was ultimately beaten resoundingly by Internet Explorer.

Net­scape Nav­i­ga­tor 1.0 was released in late 1994, its release coinciding with an explosion of personal computing. It was nominally free for non-commercial use (although these were the days where software often had to be purchased in boxes in stores or came bundled with a book, so you know, not totally free) and this helped it appeal to people getting started with the internet for the first time. Another innovation that made it attractive compared to its competitors was that it loaded pages progressively, rather than waiting for everything (ahem, graphics) to finish downloading before it would display anything at all. For people on dial-up connections, this made the internet a lot more bearable to browse.

Over four major versions, Net­scape came out with a number of major innovations, including cookies, frames, and JavaScript. While these eventually became open standards, they sure weren’t at the time Net­scape developed them, and their release was controversial because they were viewed as ways of encouraging website creators to make sites that would break in other browsers, improving Net­scape’s popularity. Of course, Internet Explorer was doing the same thing with its own proprietary innovations.

While the web browser was the most important product in Net­scape’s suite, it wasn’t the only one. For the first three major versions, both the browser and the suite were both called “Net­scape Navigator”; for version 4.0 the company decided to rename the suite, instead having “Net­scape Com­mu­ni­ca­tor” which included the web browser “Net­scape Nav­i­ga­tor”.

From a high point of almost 80% marketshare in 1996, Net­scape’s decline was rapid (falling from about 55% marketshare in 1998 to 25% in 1999). The performance of Internet Explorer 5 was much better than that of Net­scape Nav­i­ga­tor 4, with the latter becoming buggy (for example, re-downloading a webpage if the window was resized in order to re-render it) and crash-prone (for example, crashing when a page included CSS – Net­scape having instead created their own “JavaScript Style Sheet” standard). By the end of the 90s, websites were using a lot more HTML markup (for example, tables for layout purposes) and including lots of graphics – Net­scape Nav­i­ga­tor was often choking on them.

Microsoft’s business practices also hastened Net­scape’s decline, with them bundling their Internet Explorer browser into installs of Windows, and paying Apple to make Internet Explorer the default operating system in their browser too. This meant that newcomers to the internet in the late 90s were often just using the browser that came included with their operating sys­tem… and that wasn’t Net­scape.

In early 1998, Net­scape released their development code base under an open-source licence – it was this that formed the basis of the Mozilla project. The company itself was acquired by AOL in 1999, which limped along releasing a few more Net­scape versions built on the code base now managed by Mozilla (with the last versions built on Fire­fox, a mostly-rewritten version of the Mozilla code) before discontinuing their efforts at the end of 2007. Net­scape’s few remaining users were encouraged to migrate to Fire­fox.