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Netscape Navigator - the browser that started it all - turns 20

It was 20 years ago today, Marc Andreeesen taught the band to play

Welcome to Netscape

Netscape Navigator, the browser credited with taking the World Wide Web into the mainstream, was released twenty years ago yesterday, on October 13th 1994.

Netscape, the company, was born after tech investor Jim Clark spotted the Mosaic browser developed in part by then-wunderkind Marc Andreessen. At the time of the company's April formation it was called Mosaic Communications Corporation, later changed to Netscape after the company's eponymous browser debuted in December 1994.

The anniversary celebrated yesterday is of the 0.9 release of the browser which, as this Mosaic Communications Corporation press release records, was billed as follows:

“The initial version of Netscape available today on the net is a public beta version, enabling users to provide feedback on the software's features and functionality across a wide range of computing platforms. The company will also place the final version of the navigator, due out in November, on the Internet for free downloading. This version delivers security features such as encryption and server authentication. When paired with the Netsite Commerce Server due out in November, Netscape lets users take advantage of such commercial services as online publications, financial services and interactive shopping.”

Here's another quaint grab from the release:

"'Netscape is the first Internet tool that lets the average user with a 14.4 kb modem work with the Internet interactively,' said Todd Haedrich, principal of Point of Presence Company in Seattle. 'It's fast, simple and elegant. The resources that Mosaic Communications provides for its novice users in Netscape, such as the Internet directories, rival any other site on the net for their quality and depth. Netscape will help bring more people on the Internet than any program since the original NCSA Mosaic.'"

To understand the environment into which the browser was launched, consider that Mosaic proudly proclaimed the software could run on “Microsoft Windows, Apple Macintosh, and X Window System environments” and “can be obtained via anonymous FTP from ftp.mcom.com.”

The beta was free for personal use, or US$99 for commercial use.

Mosaic had excited many but, as your correspondent recalls after trying to get it working on a Mac LC II at a time when operating systems didn't always include TCP/IP stacks, was a bit of a chore to get going. Netscape greatly improved that experience and by the time of its December 1994 1.0 and 1.1 releases quickly attracted a lot of attention.

That LC II ran TeleFinder, a bulletin board client that more-or-less copied the Macintosh UI of the day. That trick was, at the time, a pretty good one. Indeed, around 1994 the world wide web did not have so much momentum that it was certain to become the dominant internet application. The likes of WAIS (Wide Area Information Servers) and Gopher still had their adherents, although their arguments became less potent as Mosaic popularised the concept of graphical browsing. That Netscape product emerged at the same time as the massive wave of hype about Windows 95 bringing point-and-click computing to the masses didn't hurt either.

Welcome to Netscape

Welcome to Netscape

The release of Netscape arguably gave the Web the momentum to shrug off WAIS, Gopher, and other rivals. The rest, as is evident from the fact you're reading this page at www.theregister.co.uk, is history.

Mosaic Communications eventually changed its name to Netscape Communications and the company built a broad range of servers. Those products, and the huge take-up of Navigator, saw the company's 1995 IPO deliver a valuation of US$2.9bn, a colossal sum for an outfit with obvious promise but also the task of making whole new markets.

It also worked like mad to revise and improve its browser. Your correspondent, recalls meeting a company representative in 1996 who promised a full point-zero release of the browser every 90 days. Such a release cycle was more-or-less unheard of at the time.

That the company succeeded was shown by Microsoft's hurried – and aggressive – ripostes. Bill Gates infamously expressed a desire to cut off Netscapae's air supply, in part by making it plain to PC makers that Microsoft viewed with great displeasure any bundling of rivals' software. Netscape may have given millions of folks an on-ramp to the internet, but in those pre-broadband days program downloads were slow, unreliable and PC-makers filled the gap by installing useful applications to save users the hassle.

Microsoft's expression of displeasure therefore made it hard for Netscape, or others, to distribute software. That eventually led to a protracted antitrust lawsuit in which Microsoft was found to be a monopolist.

That case concluded too late for Netscape, which by 1998 had decided it would be better off at AOL, then an unassailable dialup internet powerhouse. Netscape's servers were spun out to a Sun/AOL joint venture iPlanet.

Also in 1998, Netscape announced future versions of its browser would be open source, a decision that ultimately spawned the Mozilla Foundation and the Firefox browser still so widely used today.

The servers live on too: Oracle still offers some iPlanet software here.

So charge your glasses and wish a very Happy Birthday to Netscape Navigator, as influential a piece of software as any other ever coded. ®

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