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Aug 25, 2019

Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because by understanding the past, we’re able to be prepared for the innovations of the future! Today we’re going to look at the emergence of the web through the lens of Netscape, the browser that pushed everything forward into the mainstream. The Netscape story starts back at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana where the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (or NCSA) inspired Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina to write Mosaic, which was originally called xmosaic and built for X11 or the X Window System. In 1992 there were only 26 websites in the world. But that was up from the 1 that Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee built at in 1991. The internet had really only been born a few years earlier in 1989. But funded by the Gore Bill, Andreessen and a team of developers released the Alpha version of the NCSA Mosaic browser in 1993 and ported it to Windows, Mac, and of course the Amiga. At this point there were about 130 websites. Version two of Mosaic came later that year and then the National Science Foundation picked up the tab to maintain Mosaic from 94 to 97. James Clark, a co-founder of Silicon Graphics and a legend in Silicon Valley, took notice. He recruited some of the Mosaic team, led by Marc Andreessen, to start Mosaic Communications Corporation, which released Netscape Navigator in 1994, the same year Andreessen graduated from college. By then there were over 2,700 websites, and a lot of other people were taking notice after 2 four digit growth years. Yahoo! and EXCITE were released in 1994 and enjoyed an explosion in popularity, entering a field with 25 million people accessing such a small number of sites. Justin Hall was posting personal stuff on, one of the earliest forms of what we now call blogging. Someone else couldn’t help but notice: Bill Gates from Microsoft. He considered cross-platform web pages and the commoditization of the operating system to be a huge problem for his maturing startup called Microsoft, and famously sent The Internet Tidal Wave memo to his direct reports, laying out a vision for how Microsoft would respond to this thread. We got Netscape for free at the University, but I remember when I went to the professional world we had to pay for it. The look and feel of Navigator then can still be seen in modern browsers today. There was an address bar, a customizable home page, a status bar, and you could write little javascripts to do cutesy things like have a message scroll here and there or have blinked things. 1995 also brought us HTML frames, fonts on pages, the ability to change the background color, the ability to embed various forms of media, and image maps. Building sites back then was a breeze. And with an 80% market share for browsers, testing was simple: just open Netscape and view your page! Netscape was a press darling. They had insane fans that loved them. And while they hadn’t made money yet, they did something that a lot of companies do now, but few did then: they went IPO early and raked in $600 million in their first day, turning Marc Andreessen the poster child into an overnight sensation. They even started to say that the PC would live on the web - and it would do so using Netscape. Andreessen then committed the cardinal sin that put many in tech out of a job: he went after Microsoft claiming they’d reduce Microsoft to a set of “poorly debugged device drivers.” Microsoft finally responded. They had a meeting with Netscape and offered to acquire the company or they would put them out of business. Netscape lawyered up, claiming Microsoft offered to split the market up where they owned Windows and left the rest to Netscape. Internet Explorer 1 was released by Microsoft in 1995 - a fork of Mosaic which had been indirectly licensed from the code Andreessen had written while still working with the NCSA in college. And so began the “Browser Wars” with Netscape 2 being released and Internet Explorer 2, the same year. 1995 saw the web shoot up to over 23,000 sites. Netscape 2 added Netscape Mail, an email program with about as simple a name as Microsoft Mail, which had been in Windows since 1991. In 1995, Brendan Eich, a developer at Netscape wrote SpiderMonkey, the original JavaScript engine, a language many web apps still use today (just look for the .jsp extension). I was managing labs at the University of Georgia at the time and remember the fast pace that we were upgrading these browsers. NCSA telnet hadn’t been updated in years but it had never been as cool as this Netscape thing. Geocities popped up and I can still remember my first time building a website there and accessing incredible amounts of content being built - and maybe even learning a thing or two while dinking around in those neighborhoods. 1995 had been a huge and eventful year, with nearly 45 million people now “on the web.” Amazon, early search engine Altavista, LYCOS, and eBay launching as well. The search engine space sure was heating up… Then came 1996. Things got fun. Point releases of browsers came monthly. New features dropped with each release. Plugins for Internet Explorer leveraged API hooks into the Windows operating system that made pages only work on IE. Those of us working on pages had to update for both, and test for both. By the end of 1996 there were over a quarter million web pages and over 77 million people were using the web. Apple, The New York Times, appeared on the web, but 41 percent of people checked AOL regularly and other popular sites would be from ISPs for years to come. Finally, after a lot of talk and a lot of point releases, Netscape 3 was released in 1997. Javascript got a rev, a lot of styling elements some still use today like tables and frames came out and forms could be filled out automatically. There was also a gold version of Netscape 3 that allowed editing pages. But Dreamweaver gave us a nice WYSIWIG to build web pages that was far more feature rich. Netscape got buggier, they bit on more and more thus spreading developers thing. They just couldn’t keep up. And Internet Explorer was made free in Windows as of IE 3, and had become equal to Netscape. It had a lot of plugins for Windows that made it work better on that platform, for better or worse. The Browser Wars ended when Netscape decided to open source their code in 1998, creating the Mozilla project by open sourcing the Netscape Browser Suite source code. This led to Waterfox, Pale Moon, SeaMonkey, Ice Weasel, Ice Cat, Wyzo, and of course, Tor Browser, Swiftfox, Swift Weasel, Timberwolf, TenFourFox, Comodo IceDragon, CometBird, Basilisk, Cliqz, AT&T Pogo, IceCat, and Flock. But most importantly, Mozilla released Firefox themselves, which still maintains between 8 and 10 percent marketshare for browser usage according to who you ask. Of course, ultimately everyone lost the browser wars now that Chrome owns a 67% market share! Netscape was sold to AOL in 1999 for $4.2 billion, the first year they dropped out of the website popularity contest called the top 10. At this point, Microsoft controlled the market with an 80% market share. That was the first year Amazon showed up on the top list of websites. The Netscape problems continued. AOL released Netscape 6 in 2000, which was buggy and I remember a concerted effort at the time to start removing Netscape from computers. In 2003, after being acquired by Time Warner, AOL finally killed off Netscape. This was the same year Apple released Safari. They released 7.2 in 2004 after outsourcing some of the development. Netscape 9, a port of Firefox, was released in 2007. The next year Google Chrome was released. Today, Mozilla is a half-billion dollar a year not-for profit. They ship the Firefox browser, the Firefox OS mobile OS, the online file sharing service Firefox Send, the Bugzilla bug tracking tool, the Rust programming language, the Thunderbird email client, and other tools like SpiderMonkey, which is still the javascript engine embedded into Firefox and Thunderbird. If the later stage of Netscape’s code in the form of the open source Mozilla projects appeal to you, consider becoming a Mozilla Rep. You can help contribute, promote, document, and build the community with other passionate and knowledgeable humans that are on the forefront of pushing the web into new and beautiful places. For more on that, go to Andreessen went on to build Opsware with Ben Horowitz (who’s not a bad author) and others. He sold the hosting business and in 2005 continued on with Horowitz founded Andreessen Horowitz which were early investors of Facebook, Foursquare, GitHub, Groupon, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, Jawbone, Zynga, Skype, and many, many others. He didn’t win the browser wars, but he has been at the center of helping to shape the Internet as we know it today, and due to the open sourcing of the source code many other browsers popped up. The advent of the cloud has also validated many of his early arguments about the web making computer operating systems more of a commodity. Anyone who’s used Office 365 online or Google apps can back that up. Ultimately, the story of Netscape could be looked at as yet another “Bill Gates screwed us” story. But I’m not sure that does it justice. Netscape did as much to shape the Internet in those early days as anything else. Many of those early contributions, like the open nature of the Internet, various languages and techniques, and of course the code in the form of Mozilla, live on today. There were other browsers, and the Internet might have grown to what it is today. But we might not have had as much of the velocity without Andreessen and Netscape and specifically the heated competition that led to so much innovation in such a short period of time - so we certainly owe them our gratitude that we’ve come as far as we have. And I owe you my gratitude. Thank you so very much for tuning into another episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We’re lucky to have you. Have a great day!