So Long Netscape
It’s too bad it had to end for Netscape, mostly because of how much they started. There are many memories I’ve got of a company that represented
a brand new excitement and way of doing things.
I can remember the first time I used Netscape in the summer of 1995 on the campus of
Winona State University where I was working as a counselor for ‘at risk’ teens at the time.
On breaks or on weekends (when we weren’t partying the way college freshmen do) I’d use
a pretty decent computer lab at Winona State filled with Mac 9200′s to use my favorite online BBS, ISCA.
They were the fastest PC’s on campus, and also the only ones that were running Netscape 2.0, so they
were in hot demand even in the ghost town atmosphere of a college campus during the summer.
Of course, this notion of the ‘World Wide Web’ was pretty new, and totally radical in it’s thinking.
We all know the story no doubt, of how a little upstart company called Netscape had released this
piece of software called a ‘Browser’ that would let you view multi-media information
from around the world…
Although we take it for granted these days, I’m stilled awed at times, as I was then, about that
possibility. You can not only view pictures and read words created by people all over the world,
but you could also create your own pictures and words for the rest of the world to see. I’d
never ‘met’ or interacted with anyone outside North America before that.
I wasn’t the only one who was astonished by that either, because the little Netscape browser
became the hottest application on the market selling at around $40/copy. As a result of that,
Netscape the company became pretty hot themselves. So hot, that when they went public in 1994,
they shattered almost every record for first day public offerings as people realized the potential
power the Internet had, and that this single company had the software that everyone would need
to unlock that potential.
That IPO ushered in the ‘dot com’ era, where every company that had a .com after it, or an ‘e’ before it
was a hot commodity, they sky was the limit, and the future was happening now.
A while after they became a Wall St. darling and made instant millionaires out of many of their employees,
I got to intern at Netscape for a summer. There’s literally no way to describe the environment in that
place at that time. There was a constant buzz in the air, whether it was about changing the world, excitement about doing something
‘cool’, software engineers in shorts and purple hair, a camera hooked up to the Web that posted constant pictures
of a fish tank(one of the most popular sites ever on the Web BTW was that fish-cam), or a new attitude about
jobs and lifestyles.
Netscape was going to rule the world for a while, and it was pretty cool to be
involved with that at the height of the good times.
Naturally, the good times didn’t last as time flew by. Microsoft used illegal tactics to undermine Netscape’s
browser (for which they were later convicted, but not punished), and the bubble burst. What was once
a company that was going to revolutionize the world was now being picked over by America Online as an
acquisition target. In my head, the day when AOL acquired Netscape was pretty much the death of Netscape.
Thankfully, Netscape did make one last revolutionary move before their time was up. They released the
source code for their flagship product, the Netscape Navigator browser, to the public, and would continue
to develop it as an open source project called Mozilla.
Just like I have fond memories of Netscape, I’ve also got them about Mozilla. April 1 1999 was the ‘official’
release of the source code, and I remember being online on IRC at midnight waiting for the source code
to hit the FTP servers. People were like sharks waiting to get at that code, and I was right there with them.
When it did finally hit, and everyone jumped on that FTP server.
And like sharks frenzying over scraps of an injured seal,
it was almost impossible to get. Even more funny was that once we all did have the source code,
it was impossible to compile. In order to make Netscape Navigator suitable to be released under an open source
license, they had to rip out huge amounts of proprietary code that was licensed from other companies.
Ripping out that licensed proprietary code to make it really open source left huge gaps, and I remember it was
like a week until some guy got it to even compile, but when he did, everyone was totally amazed and wanted
him to release his source tree, so they too could get Navigator to compile.
It was really funny, because in the Mozilla community, the Netscape guys were like, “Hey people, don’t make changes
to that guys source tree just because it happens to compile! We’ve got work to do on the official source tree,
so it not only compiles, but is actually functional.” I don’t know why, but I still get a huge kick out of that.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was one of those people who couldn’t wait and spent like three days
praying to the MSVC++ gods for a Makefile that worked. :)
And for years after that, I was a faithful follower of Mozilla, which I started using full time about the
beginning of 2000, as I documented at the time in this article. Every ‘M’ (milestone) release
I was dutifully upgrading. M13 through M18. Mozilla 0.6 till what I’m typing this into, Mozilla 1.4. For
nearly four years, I’ve been using the same software to browse the Web and manage my email. It’s pretty easy
to say that I love Mozilla. :)
I love it even more in the wake of the news about Netscape getting the ax. It’s kind of like a child of famous
parents who everyone knew and liked, but no longer has those parents, and is alone in the world.
Thankfully, Mozilla will live on despite not being part of the AOL-TW family, and in my opinion will prosper
more because of that. With the formation of the Mozilla
Foundation to lead the Mozilla charge, the project will receive not only the financial backing it needs,
but also the evangelism and support it deserves, but AOL-TW never offered. Although it’s sad to see Netscape
officially wacked, the future looks bright for Mozilla, and I’m pretty excited about the possibilities that
It’s pretty cool to be excited by the prospects that a piece of software can provide, if you think about it.
It’s also pretty cool to be reminded of the excitement that a particular piece of software like Netscape
Navigator generated not only about the software, but how it was going to (and did) change the way many of us
lived our day to day lives and how it has opened the entire world up to us. It’s not often that something
as simple as a piece of software can make you feel that way, and it’s a big reason I’ll miss Netscape.