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AOL kills Netscape

The party's over - but who's to blame?

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Jobless levels in the USA reached their highest point for twenty years this week, and the mother lode of the "Long Boom", San Francisco, has just been declared the fastest-shrinking city in the nation.

Now AOL-Time Warner has added to the pyre by making most of its Netscape browser division redundant. Netscape's public flotation in 1995 marked the start of the Internet frenzy. But in the blink of an accountant's eye, the great emblem of California's vitality as an engine for technology-led prosperity has disappeared, and contractors were seen peeling the logo off the corporate buildings early yesterday afternoon.

This isn't all necessarily the end of the world. Along with Netscape's 1998 fire sale to AOL, the company chose to make the browser code open source, and agreed to fund the Mozilla project with the understanding that the Mozilla project would release killer code with which to whup Microsoft's ass, and thereby redress the structural and economic advantages that Microsoft, which controlled the underlying platform, enjoyed.

But it didn't happen. The finger-pointing may carry on for many years, but the responsibility for this debacle depends on which side of this piviotal dot.com divide you choose to sit on.

On the one hand, the corrupt suits at AOL failed to appreciate the majesty of the Mozilla code, pulled features (such as blocking pop-up windows which AOL's advertisers loved, but users hated), forked willy-nilly, threw in adware where they could, and generally betrayed the Great Noble Project.

On the other hand, when a killer app was needed in haste, the Mozilla team wandered off into Lotus-eating land and spent four years creating esoteric frameworks and note-perfect bug tracking systems that only a nerd could appreciate.

Both these points of view are caricatures, of course.

But techno-utopians tend to get lost in their fabulous daydreams, sometimes. They forget that these browser things are just tools, and browsers are just windows onto the web, so a graceful XUL framework means diddly-squat to the innocent punter. Creating a neat C++ framework when what the world really needs a non-Microsoft browser is nothing but a deriliction of duty: a piece of vanity code. What we Brits call pointless "willy waving".

When AOL bought Netscape, the browser that created the revolution had market share parity with Microsoft's Internet Explorer. When AOL pulled the plug, it was being counted in fractions of a percentage point.

So it's more than a mere accident that Opera, with its relentless focus on the Human Interface - and looking after the needs of users like your grandmother - stands set to reap the rewards. Instead of investigating the nerd-options, Opera invested in smartphones and embedded appliances. But the Opera browser has emerged from the most unlikely of places, a tiny oil-rich Scandinavian country which honors an altogether more civilized mode of business than the Hegelian, Wild-West, suggesting that the marketing/technical narrative we're likely to hear is too limited to explain what really took place.

While the Mozilla project may surely prosper, as a kind of ham radio for refuseniks, the great experiment has failed. AOL owned a mass market: now it has decided that the code simply isn't good enough for the mass market.

Netscape's death will provoke a thousand arguments, but none will be so useful as utility. Well, maybe and perhaps, browsers don't really matter too much. But the fact that Microsoft's miserable excuse for a web browser - a sorry piece of code that has been untouched by human hand for many years, now - speaks volumes about indulging the wrong kind of people with big responsibilities. In the end, it was these coders who failed us. ®

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