At Least You Can Still Go

At Least You Can Still Go

Here’s a trivia question: Where does the following URL take you?

If you haven’t already clicked it, here’s the answer: It goes the Netscape home page (now AOL’s [Update: Since this post was written, has been restored to its appearance on October 21, 1994. For the details, see the post by former Netscape employee Jamie Zawinski (“jwz”).]

MCom-logo.pngWhy The original name of the Netscape Corporation was Mosaic Communications Corporation, named for the Mosaic web browser that Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina developed while at the University of Illinois. On November 14, 1994 Mosaic Communications Corporation changed its name to Netscape Communications Corporation to “further establish its unique identity in the industry and to accommodate concerns expressed by the University of Illinois” about confusion with NCSA’s Mosaic browser. Why Back then the fad to name a Web site’s home page ‘www’ hadn’t fully caught hold.

I was reminded of this bit of ‘net nostalgia because of Friday’s announcement that AOL will officially nix the Netscape Web browser. ( blog post here:

This was, of course, inevitable in light of recent history. Netscape had effectively ceased to exist as a unit within AOL years ago. This is but another sad footnote in the history of a company that did so much to facilitate the evolution of the Web — and a reminder of how quickly a company’s fortunes can change.

I recall the launch event for Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center on September 30, 1997. A day or so later I stopped by the Netscape offices in Mountain View to view the handiwork of some (presumed) Microsoft revelers who dropped off a metal and wood sculpture of Microsoft’s IE 4 logo on the front lawn of Netscape’s main building where Ellis meets Middlefield at 501 E. Middlefield Road. Rather than removing the logo, the Netscape crew adorned it with a large Styrofoam sculpture of their Mozilla mascot and spray-painted “Netscape Now” on the side of IE icon. (For historical documentation of this event, see the Mozilla Museum’s “Mozilla stomps IE“.) A placard was added that read “Netscape – 72, Microsoft – 18” indicating the relative market share of two browsers at that time.

This was, of course, about to change rapidly as IE’s market share took off following the launch of MSIE 4.

netscape-badge.gifI was a member of Netscape’s Customer Advisory Council throughout 1998, the year that everything changed. The year began with Netscape still the brash upstart. You could see the company’s recent growth by the hastily-painted Netscape signs in front an expanding array of office buildings spreading out from their main building at the intersection of Ellis and Middlefield roads. Before the year was out, however — on November 24 1998 — AOL (then America Online) announced plans to acquire Netscape Communications and the company’s long slide into irrelevance was underway. The last time I drove by 501 E. Middlefield, the former Netscape office building was occupied by VeriSign.

I recall talking to Netscape’s Ramanathan Guha at an Advisory Board meeting sometime around late summer or early fall of 1998. When I asked about the threat Microsoft presented to Netscape’s business model, I initially was handed the party line about how Netscape’s products and market position were superior and so on. Then Guha dropped the game face. His voice took on a more somber tone as he asked what, at the time, seemed like an odd question: “What if we were an ISP?” He pointed out that while Microsoft currently had all of its armaments directed at Netscape, the company didn’t appear to perceive AOL as a threat and wasn’t focusing its competitive energies on that company. At that moment I realized how much the Microsoft threat weighed on Netscape and its employees. They were desperately seeking a business model that didn’t directly confront the Redmond giant. Of course, the full ramifications of the question didn’t occur to me until the announcement of the AOL deal later that year.

The acquisition by AOL didn’t save Netscape. Although Netscape still exists as a brand within AOL, it has lost most of its luster. And now the Netscape browser is no more.

But many of the company’s innovations remain, particularly in the work of the open source Mozilla Foundation that Netscape started and Netscape’s Gecko layout engine that forms the core of Mozilla browser.

And there’s something strangely comforting about the fact the still works, even if the destination has changed quite a bit. I’m quite pleased that an article I wrote a decade ago for Netscape’s Intranet Executive column is still online at a URL: [Update: Sadly, after almost a decade at this Web address, this page is no longer available at this location. It is, however, still available through the Internet Archive.]

It’s good to have a sense of continuity in the fluid and ephemeral world of the Web.

3 thoughts on “At Least You Can Still Go

  1. Unreal and awesome, Kendall. I remember the first time I browsed the “web”, back in 1995 on NCSA Mosaic (previously using Lynx). This little trip down the annals of web browser history was priceless.

    And so is the sidebar photo of your bad self in that last link!

    Happy New Year!


  2. Thanks for the comment, Joe.

    It’s hard to believe it has only been a decade since Netscape was a powerhouse and Microsoft launched Internet Explorer 4, their first real contender in the Web browser wars.

    Like you, I recall my first encounter with the Web — back in 1993. By the end of 1993 I had a Web server on an HP-UX box in the corner my office responding to

    Believe it or not, one of the things that drew me to the Web was the ability to provide a cross-platform (Win/Mac/Unix) browsing interface to Wharton’s collection of PDF files — making Wharton (by the end of 1993) one of the earliest sites to publish a collection of PDF documents over the Web. (As a point of reference, didn’t go online until sometime in mid-1994.)

    Wharton had been a beta site for Acrobat 1.0 and, shortly after the product shipped in June 1993, we published our computing documentation (and, shortly afterwards, other School publications) in PDF. The PDF files were originally served from a Novell NetWare file server to make the documents available from both our DOS/Windows and Macintosh lab computers.

    The problem was: How to present an interface students could use to find the files? Because the Mac OS supported long file names (including spaces!) you could create hierarchical folders and file names that made sense. But DOS/Windows was still limited to 8.3 file names back then, so we created a ToolBook application to let users browse the document categories and launch the PDF files in Acrobat Reader. But the two interfaces were difficult to maintain, and it bugged me that the Windows and Mac interfaces were so different (even though they led to the same PDF files).

    In contrast, HTML provided a flexible, easy-to-maintain interface that (like PDF) worked on Windows, Mac, and Unix. And, better yet, you didn’t have to be inside the NetWare LAN environment to access the documents. If you had a Web browser like Mosaic or ViolaWWW, a TCP/IP stack, and an ISP you could get the PDF documents from off-campus. Or anywhere in the world.
    Hmmm…this could get really interesting…

    But this is another story that I’ll save for a future post. I still have many of the HTML files from Wharton’s Web site from late-1993, ’94, and ’95. I’ll put them online at some point. In the meantime, here’s an article from the September 1994 Penn Printout describing how Wharton and Penn’s Information Systems and Computing worked to expand this WWW/PDF initiative University-wide:



  3. Looking forward to the next post, Kendall!

    It’s great to get this “historical” (in quotes because, let’s face it, it was eons ago in Internet-time but less than 15 calendar years) context for some of the work you and WCIT did in the formational days of the Web.


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