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Netscape Navigator

Netscape Navigator is a web browser that once dominated the market but is now hardly more than a niche product.

Table of contents
1 Development
2 The Browser Wars
3 The open source revolution
4 Version history
5 References
6 External links


Netscape began as the flagship product of the Netscape Communications Corporation and was loosely based on NCSA's Mosaic In fact, Marc Andreessen, who worked on the development of the Mosaic web browser, left NCSA with Jim Clark to form Mosaic Communications, but due to NCSA threatening legal action for using the Mosaic name, they renamed themselves Netscape. When the consumer Internet revolution arrived in the mid to late 1990s, Netscape was well positioned to take advantage of it. With a good mix of features and an attractive licensing scheme that allowed free use for non-commercial purposes, the Netscape browser soon became the de facto-standard, particularly on the Windows platform. Internet service providers and computer magazine publishers helped make Navigator readily available.

Through the late 1990s, Netscape made sure that Navigator remained the technical leader amongst web browsers. Important new features included frames (version 2.0), cookies, and JavaScript (version 3.0). Although those and other innovations eventually became open standards of the W3C and ECMA and were emulated by other browsers, they were often viewed as controversial. Netscape, according to critics, was more interested in bending the web to its own de facto standards (and thus marginalizing the commercial competition) than it was in improving user experience of the Navigator product. Consumer rights advocates were particularly critical of the ability to invade individual privacy that cookies gave to commercial websites.

During development the Netscape browser was known by the code name Mozilla. This name came about after the company changed its name from Mosaic Communications to Netscape, and was a shortened version of its perceived role as the Mosaic Killer. After release the Mozilla name continued to be used as the User-Agent in the HTTP request, and is still used today by Microsoft Internet Explorer as well as others to claim compatibility to the supposed "standards" that Netscape started. Mozilla is now the name of the Open source successor to the browser.

The Browser Wars

In the marketplace, however, these concerns had little effect; Netscape Navigator remained the unchallenged leader with approximately 90% market share. Industry observers confidently forecast the dawn of a new era of connected computing. The underlying operating software, it was believed, would become an unimportant consideration; most applications would simply run on a web browser—which itself, of course, could run on virtually any platform from mainframe to thin client.

This was seen by Netscape as a clear opportunity to entrench Navigator at the heart of the next generation of computing, and thus provide Netscape with the opportunity to expand into all manner of other software and service markets. Conversely, Microsoft saw it as a clear threat to the previously unchallenged near-monopoly status of the Windows operating system. The two companies began concerted campaigns to maintain (or establish, in Microsoft's case) control over the browser market. Browser market share, it was reasoned, leads to control over internet standards, and that in turn would provide the opportunity to sell software and services.

Netscape had the advantage of near-90% market share and a good deal of public goodwill, but as a relatively small company deriving the great bulk of its income from what was essentially a single product (Navigator and various derivitives), was financially vulnerable.

Microsoft, on the other hand, had massive financial resources but tiny market share and a product that was, in the early days, markedly inferior. With the stated intention of "cutting off Netscape's air supply", Microsoft released their own Internet Explorer, and soon made it a free (and in fact compulsory) part of Windows 95.

Netscape Navigator 1.22 screenshot ()

The early versions of Internet Explorer (IE) were clearly inferior to Navigator, but a massive development effort led to rapid improvement. IE version 3.0 (1996) was a usable substitute, and IE 5.0 (1998) was very large and bloated by the standards of the day but superior in almost all respects. Neither browser, though, adhered to the W3C's HTML and CSS standards, causing compatability problems which still have an impact today.

Meanwhile, Netscape's own browser development stagnated. Distracted by commercial considerations, Netscape's coders made only minor changes to Navigator, and worked away on the Netscape Communicator project - a major re-write of Navigator that added email and HTML composition modules.

Although it was being starved of revenue, the Netscape company was eventually able to sell itself to giant media conglomerate AOL. The purchase price was AOL stock valued at $4.2 billion at the deal announcement in November 1998.

When Communicator was eventually released, the new features were largely ignored by users, but the size increase and speed reduction were noted. More and more people switched to IE - which was no smaller but was at least more stable in 5.0 form, and faster in two different senses: much of the program load time was disguised by having Windows pre-load Explorer code at system boot time; and IE's page rendering engine was better at drawing complex pages (especially those composed of nested HTML tables).

By the end of the decade, Navigator had unquestionably lost its former dominance on the Windows platform. Even on other platforms it was threatened, both by the gradual rise of open source browsers and by the August 1997 agreement that resulted in an investment of $150,000,000 by Microsoft in Apple, which included a requirement that Apple switch their default browser from Netscape to Explorer. (An earlier, and perhaps more severe blow had been AOL's switch into the Microsoft camp - this was before AOL bought Netscape.) Underlying all of this, though, was the massive and ultimately successful campaign to get ISPs to distribute Explorer instead of Netscape, and web developers to incorporate proprietary, Microsoft-only code in web pages.

The elderly Navigator 4.x code just couldn't keep up. Typical web pages had become graphics-heavy, often Java-intensive, and were constructed with masses of extraordinarily complex HTML code that used constructs designed for specific narrow purposes and redeployed them as global layout tools - in particular this applied to HTML tables, which Navigator struggled to render. Netscape, once regarded as a reasonably solid product, came to be seen as crash-prone and buggy.

The open source revolution

In 1998, Netscape bowed to the inevitable and abandoned the effort to make the browser a paying commercial product. Instead, Netscape split off most of the Navigator code and put it under an open source license as Mozilla. In the short-term, this achieved nothing. After the code was branched, work was started on Netscape 5.0, but it was decided to abandon the attempt to continue to develop the elderly Netscape Communicator code and the Mozilla team took on the massive task of completely rewriting the browser code from scratch, and Netscape 5.0 was never finished or released. The decision was criticized by some observers on the grounds that it allowed Microsoft to win the browser war on the Windows platform. Others believed that the war was already lost in any case, and that it was better to create a new and more capable product before returning to the fray.

Netscape Navigator 7.0.2 screenshot ()

With much fanfare, Netscape's new owners AOL released Netscape 6 on November 14, 2000, based on early Mozilla code. The product was a massive disappointment: it was huge, slow, unstable, and (in the eyes of most) visually unappealing. This was not surprising as the Mozilla core itself was nowhere near release-ready and itself unstable.

Netscape 6.1 and Netscape 6.2, released in 2001, addressed the stability problems, but were still large and slow and could not overcome Netscape 6's bad reputation. They were generally ignored by the market.

In 2002, AOL released Netscape 7. It was based on a very stable and notably faster Mozilla 1.0 core and bundled with extras like integrated AOL Instant Messenger, integrated ICQ and Radio@Netscape. In the main, the market responded to what was essentially a repackaged version of Mozilla, swollen with integrated tools to access proprietary services owned by AOL, by ignoring it. Competition from the now-mature and competent non-Microsoft alternatives in Opera and the regular Mozilla distribution was presumably a major factor. A further release of Netscape 7.1 (based on Mozilla 1.4) was similarly ignored.

On the Windows platform, Netscape Navigator is a minor player. There is some use of recent versions, but most remaining Netscape use under Windows is by people who steadfastly refuse to switch from the elderly 4.x (the newer browsers generally require more powerful machines for a decent performance). On other platforms, particularly ones like Linux which do not have Internet Explorer bundled, Netscape remained the dominant browser for much longer. Only in the last year or two has the rise of alternatives like Mozilla and Konqueror given it strong competition.

AOL announced on July 15th, 2003 that it had or intended to fire all its remaining paid programmers responsible for the Netscape browser rebranding of Mozilla. Combined with AOL's agreement with Microsoft to use Internet Explorer in future versions of the AOL software, Netscape as a browser will likely become a historical footnote. However, the Netscape brand will live on as the name of AOL's low-cost internet service.

Version history


The development of the Netscape browser and the company was described in the book Netscape Time by Jim Clark and Owen Edwards (Hardcover ISBN 0312199341; Paperback ISBN 0312263619).

External links