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Netscape Navigator

Netscape Navigator is a web browser that once dominated the market but now has only a relatively small number of users.



Netscape Navigator, also known simply as "Netscape", was the flagship product of the Netscape Communications Corporation. The company was founded by developers who had written the Mosaic web browser at NCSA, and they initially named their new company "Mosaic Communications Corporation" and the web browser "Mosaic Netscape", but a legal challenge from NCSA over the rights to the name resulted in the company and the product being renamed.

Netscape Navigator 1.22
Netscape Navigator 1.22

Beta versions of the web browser were freely downloadable in mid- to late-1994, and version 1.0 of the browser was released by the end of the year. The first few releases of the product were made available in "commercial" and "evaluation" versions; for example, version "1.0" and version "1.0N". The "N" evaluation versions were completely identical to the commercial versions; the letter was there to remind people to pay for the browser once they felt they had tried it long enough and were satisfied with it. This distinction was formally dropped within a year of the initial release, and the full version of the browser continued to be made available for free online, with boxed versions available on floppy disks (and later CDs) in stores along with a period of phone support. Email support was initially free, and remained so for a year or two until the volume of support requests grew too high.

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.

During development the Netscape browser was known by the code name Mozilla, which became the name of a Godzilla-like cartoon dragon mascot used prominently on the company's web site. The Mozilla name was also used as the User-Agent in HTTP requests by the browser. Other web browsers (including Microsoft Internet Explorer) claimed to be compatible with Netscape's extensions to HTML, and therefore used the same name in their User-Agent identifiers so that web servers would send them the same pages as were sent to Netscape browsers. (A competitor's unauthorized use of a trademarked name could have been grounds for a lawsuit, but that possibility was left unexplored.) Mozilla is now the name of the open source successor to Netscape Navigator.

Through the late 1990s, Netscape made sure that Navigator remained the technical leader among web browsers. Important new features included cookies, frames (in version 2.0), and JavaScript (in 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" (bypassing standards committees and thus marginalizing the commercial competition) than it was in fixing bugs in its products. Consumer rights advocates were particularly critical of cookies and of commercial web sites using them to invade individual privacy.

In the marketplace, however, these concerns made little difference. Netscape Navigator remained the market leader with approximately 90% market share. The browser software was available for a wide range of operating systems, including Windows (3.1, 95, 98, NT), Macintosh, Linux, OS/2, BeOS, and many versions of Unix including DEC, Sun Solaris, BSDI , IRIX, AIX, and HP-UX, and looked and worked nearly identically on every one of them. Netscape began to experiment with prototypes of a web-based system, known internally as "Constellation", which would allow a user to access and edit his files anywhere across a network no matter what computer or operating system he happened to be using.

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; future applications would run within a web browser. This was seen by Netscape as a clear opportunity to entrench Navigator at the heart of the next generation of computing, and thus gain the opportunity to expand into all manner of other software and service markets.


Microsoft saw Netscape's success as a clear threat to the monopoly status of the Microsoft Windows operating system. It began a wide-reaching campaign to establish 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. Microsoft licensed the Mosaic source code from Spyglass, Inc., an offshoot of the University of Illinois, and turned it into Internet Explorer.

The resulting battle between the two companies became known as the Browser Wars. Versions 1.0 and 2.0 of IE were markedly inferior to the same versions of Netscape Navigator; IE 3.0 (1996) began to catch up to its competition; IE 4.0 (1997) was the first version that looked to have Netscape beaten, and IE 5.0 (1998) with many bug fixes and stability improvements saw Navigator's marketshare plummet below IE for the first time.

Netscape Navigator 3.0 came in two versions, Standard Edition and Gold Edition. The latter consisted of the Navigator browser with mail and news readers and a web page WYSIWYG composition tool integrated into it. The extra functionality only made the software program larger, slower, and more prone to crashes, and the decision to integrate all these features together was widely criticized. But this integrated version became the only version when it was renamed Netscape Communicator in version 4.0; the product's name change (Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale insisted that Communicator was a general-purpose client application which contained the Navigator browser) diluted its name recognition and confused users.

Netscape Navigator 4
Netscape Navigator 4

The aging Communicator 4.x code just couldn't keep up with Internet Explorer 5.0. Typical web pages had become graphics-heavy, often JavaScript-intensive, and were constructed with increasingly complex HTML code that used features designed for specific narrow purposes but redeployed them as global layout tools (in particular this applied to HTML tables, which Communicator struggled to render). The Netscape browser, once regarded as a reasonably solid product, came to be seen as crash-prone and buggy. It didn't help that some versions of it tended to re-download an entire web page to re-render it when the browser window was resized, a considerable burden to dial-up users. In addition, the browser's somewhat dated-looking interface didn't have the modern appearance of Internet Explorer.

By the end of the decade, Netscape's web browser 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 the default browser in new installations of Mac OS from Netscape to Internet Explorer. Of greatest significance, though, was Microsoft's massive and ultimately successful campaign to get ISPs and PC vendors to distribute Internet Explorer to their customers instead of Netscape. This was helped in part by Microsoft's investment in making IE brandable, such that it was a quick operation to create a customized version of IE. Also, web developers increasingly used proprietary, Microsoft-only HTML extensions in the web pages they wrote. (See Embrace, extend and extinguish.)

Eventually Microsoft emerged victorious in the browser wars, and Netscape was acquired in 1999 by AOL.

Open source

In March 1998, realizing that the browser market was lost and hoping that a non-Microsoft web browser might gain some attention in the open source community, Netscape split off most of the Communicator code and put it under an open source license. The project was dubbed Mozilla. It was estimated that turning the gutted source code (all proprietary elements had to be removed) into a new browser release might take a year, and so it was decided that the next release of the corporate Netscape browser, version 5.0, would be based on it. Netscape assigned its browser development engineers to help with the project.

Later that year it was quite evident that development on Mozilla was not proceeding quickly, so Netscape reassigned some of its engineers to a new Communicator 4.5 release. This had the result of redirecting part of the browser effort into a dead-end branch even while Internet Explorer 5.0 was still building momentum. Meanwhile the Mozilla engineers decided to scrap the Communicator code and start over from scratch. The first public builds of Mozilla two years later were disappointing, with many mid-level PCs too slow to run the bloated browser (which used its own custom set of graphical user interface widgets and had a customizable UI built in a custom XML dialect).

Version number 5 was skipped, because by then IE 5.0 had been available for a year and a half. There were plans to release an almost-ready version 5.0 based on the 4.x codebase, but this idea was scrapped and all resources bound to work on the Mozilla-based Netscape 6.0 release which some Netscape employees still deem one of the bigger mistakes in the company's history.

With much fanfare, Netscape's new owners AOL released Netscape 6 on November 14, 2000, based on pre-release Mozilla code. The product was a colossal disappointment: it was huge, slow, unstable, and (in the eyes of most) visually unappealing. None of this was 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 more stable and notably faster Mozilla 1.0 core and bundled with extras like integrated AOL Instant Messenger, integrated ICQ, and [email protected] 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 mature and competent non-Microsoft alternatives such as the Opera web browser and the regular Mozilla distribution was a major factor. A point release of Netscape 7.1 (based on Mozilla 1.4) was similarly ignored. However, Netscape is still the most used distribution of Mozilla.

On the Windows platform, the Netscape web browser has long since become irrelevant. There are still some users of recent versions, but most of them are people who are unwilling or unable to switch from the outdated and crash-prone 4.x versions, since the newer browsers generally require more powerful machines for decent performance. On other platforms which do not have Internet Explorer bundled (such as Linux), 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 15, 2003 that it was laying off all its remaining development staff working on the Netscape version of Mozilla. Combined with AOL's antitrust case court settlement with Microsoft to use Internet Explorer in future versions of the AOL software, this marked the effective end of development on Netscape Navigator, the open source projects not withstanding. The Netscape brand name will live on as the name of AOL's low-cost dialup internet service.

Netscape 7.2 was released on August 17 2004, though AOL is not re-starting the Netscape browser division [1].

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

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45