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 netscape.aol.com). [Update: Since this post was written, http://home.mcom.com has been restored to its appearance on October 21, 1994. For the details, see the post by former Netscape employee Jamie Zawinski (“jwz”).]
Why mcom.com? 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 home.mcom.com? 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. (News.com blog post here: http://www.news.com/underexposed/8301-13580_3-9838145-39.html)
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.
I 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 http://home.mcom.com 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 Netscape.com URL: http://wp.netscape.com/columns/intranet/wharton.html. [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.