Thursday, January 3, 2008

Software Graveyard: The Death of a Pioneer

Last Friday, AOL announced it was ending its support for (i.e., putting an end to) the Netscape web browser. I doubt many people will be affected by the news; no one is using Netscape any more.

But not so long ago, Netscape was the web browser. It was the first in general use that displayed graphics. Old timers like me might remember Lynx, which did let you look at web pages, but not graphics. That didn't matter much, since you were connecting with a 2400 baud modem and graphics took ages to load.
But Netscape made web browsing attractive. It turned it from the abode of geeks to an experience that everyone can enjoy. Its interface was what all web browsers emulate, with the Home, Back, Forward, and Reload buttons still an integral part of any web browser. It used the term "Bookmarks" to mark web pages.

Doesn't look so different, does it?

It's hard to imagine that Netscape once had 90% of the web browser market. However, they fell victim to Microsoft deciding to give away Internet Explorer (odd as it seems now, but Netscape used to ask people to pay to use their software). Suddenly, there was competition, and if MSIE wasn't quite as good, it was good enough, especially at the price. Netscape had to give away their product, and without the resources of Microsoft, was not the same technically.

Several different business models were tried, but eventually Netscape was purchased by AOL in 1999. And AOL quite rightly decided to get out of the browser business. Netscape was down to less than 1% the browser market in 2004, and just could not compete with Firefox, Opera, or Safari.

The road is littered with software that went from being ubiquitous to forgotten: Lotus 1-2-3, Harvard Graphics, Wordstar, MultiMate, and many others. I'll be talking about them from time to time. But Netscape was a major player and important milestone in the creation of the World Wide Web, and its passing deserves note.