Saturday, December 29, 2007

Netscape browser's last days

Netscape Navigator, the world's first commercial Web browser and the launch pad of the Internet boom, will be pulled off life support Feb. 1 after a 13-year run.

Its current caretakers, Time Warner's AOL, decided to kill further development and technical support to focus on beefing up the company's advertising business. Netscape's usage dwindled with Microsoft's entry into the browser business, and Netscape all but faded away after the birth of its open-source cousin, Firefox.

Despite its quiet demise, it's hard to overestimate the impact the browser and the company had on Silicon Valley.

The World Wide Web was but a few years old when in April 1993 a team at the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications released Mosaic, the first Web browser to integrate images and sound with words. Before Mosaic, access to the Internet and the Web was largely limited to text, with any graphics displayed in separate windows.

Marc Andreessen and many of his university colleagues soon left and moved to Silicon Valley to form a company to commercialize the browser. The first version of Netscape came out in late 1994.

Netscape fed the gold-rush atmosphere of the time with a landmark initial public offering in August 1995. Netscape's stock carried a then-steep IPO price of $28 a share, a price that doubled on opening day to give the start-up a $2 billion market value even though it had only $20 million in sales.

But Netscape's success also drew the attention of Microsoft, which quickly won market share by giving away its Internet Explorer browser for free with its flagship Windows operating system. The bundling prompted a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit and later a settlement with Microsoft.

But it was too late. Undone by IE, Netscape sold itself to AOL in a $10 billion deal completed in early 1999.

And now the company's browser will effectively go away.

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