Netscape Navigator

Template:Infobox Software Netscape Navigator, also known simply as "Netscape", is a proprietary web browser that was widely used. Once the flagship product of Netscape Communications Corporation and the dominant browser in terms of usage share, its userbase had almost completely evaporated by 2002.

The browser was superseded by the Netscape Communicator internet suite, followed by Netscape.


History and development

The creation

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Mosaic Netscape 0.9, a beta version, running on Windows. Note the image of the Mozilla mascot, and the Mosaic logo in the top-right corner.

Netscape Navigator was developed by the team who had created the Mosaic web browser at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. The company they created was initially named "Mosaic Communications Corporation" and their web browser "Mosaic Netscape", but a legal challenge from NCSA over the rights to the name resulted in the company and the product being renamed. The name "Netscape" was invented by sales representative Greg Sands.

Beta versions of the web browser were freely downloadable in mid- to late-1994, and version 1.0 of the browser was released by the end of the year.

The first few releases of the product were made available in "commercial" and "evaluation" versions; for example, version "1.0" and version "1.0N". The "N" evaluation versions were completely identical to the commercial versions; the letter was there to remind people to pay for the browser once they felt they had tried it long enough and were satisfied with it. This distinction was formally dropped within a year of the initial release, and the full version of the browser continued to be made available for free online, with boxed versions available on floppy disks (and later CDs) in stores along with a period of phone support. Email support was initially free, and remained so for a year or two until the volume of support requests grew too high.

During development the Netscape browser was known by the code name Mozilla, which became the name of a Godzilla-like cartoon dragon mascot used prominently on the company's web site (see Mozilla (mascot)). The Mozilla name was also used as the User-Agent in HTTP requests by the browser. Other web browsers (including Microsoft Internet Explorer) claimed to be compatible with Netscape's extensions to HTML, and therefore used the same name in their User-Agent identifiers so that web servers would send them the same pages as were sent to Netscape browsers. (A competitor's unauthorized use of a trademarked name could have been grounds for a lawsuit, but that possibility was left unexplored.) Mozilla is now the name of the open source successor to Netscape Navigator.

The rise

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Netscape Navigator 1.22

When the consumer Internet revolution arrived in the mid to late 1990s, Netscape was well positioned to take advantage of it. With a good mix of features and an attractive licensing scheme that allowed free use for non-commercial purposes, the Netscape browser soon became the de facto standard, particularly on the Windows platform. Internet service providers and computer magazine publishers helped make Navigator readily available.

An important innovation that Netscape introduced in 1994 was the on-the-fly display of webpages, where text and graphics appeared on the screen as the web page downloaded. Earlier web browsers would not display a page until all graphics on it had been loaded over the network connection; this made a user often have to stare at a blank page for as long as several minutes. With Netscape, people using dial-up connections could begin reading the text of a webpage within seconds of entering a web address, even before the rest of the text and graphics had finished downloading. This made the web much more tolerable to the average user.

Through the late 1990s, Netscape made sure that Navigator remained the technical leader among web browsers. Important new features included cookies, frames (in version 2.0), and JavaScript (in version 3.0). Although those and other innovations eventually became open standards of the W3C and ECMA and were emulated by other browsers, they were often viewed as controversial. Netscape, according to critics, was more interested in bending the web to its own de facto "standards" (bypassing standards committees and thus marginalizing the commercial competition) than it was in fixing bugs in its products. Consumer rights advocates were particularly critical of cookies and of commercial web sites using them to invade individual privacy.

In the marketplace, however, these concerns made little difference. Netscape Navigator remained the market leader with approximately 90% usage share. The browser software was available for a wide range of operating systems, including Microsoft Windows (3.1, 95, 98, NT), Macintosh, Linux, OS/2, and many versions of Unix including DEC, Sun Solaris, BSDI, IRIX, AIX, and HP-UX, and looked and worked nearly identically on every one of them. Netscape began to experiment with prototypes of a web-based system, known internally as "Constellation", which would allow a user to access and edit his files anywhere across a network no matter what computer or operating system he happened to be using.

Industry observers confidently forecast the dawn of a new era of connected computing. The underlying operating system, it was believed, would become an unimportant consideration; future applications would run within a web browser. This was seen by Netscape as a clear opportunity to entrench Navigator at the heart of the next generation of computing, and thus gain the opportunity to expand into all manner of other software and service markets.

The fall

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Usage share of Netscape Navigator over time

Microsoft saw Netscape's success as a clear threat to the monopoly status of the Microsoft Windows operating system. It began a wide-reaching campaign to establish control over the browser market. Browser market share, it was reasoned, leads to control over internet standards, and that in turn would provide the opportunity to sell software and services. Microsoft licensed the Mosaic source code from Spyglass, Inc., an offshoot of the University of Illinois, and turned it into Internet Explorer.

The resulting battle between the two companies became known as the browser wars. Versions 1.0 and 2.0 of IE were markedly inferior to the same versions of Netscape Navigator; IE 3.0 (1996) began to catch up to its competition; IE 4.0 (1997) was the first version that looked to have Netscape beaten, and IE 5.0 (1998) with many bug fixes and stability improvements saw Navigator's marketshare plummet below IE for the first time.

Netscape Navigator 3.0 came in two versions, Standard Edition and Gold Edition. The latter consisted of the Navigator browser with mail and news readers and a web page WYSIWYG composition tool integrated into it. The extra functionality only made the software program larger, slower, and more to crashes, and the decision to integrate all these features together was widely criticized. But this integrated version became the only version when it was renamed Netscape Communicator in version 4.0; the product's name change (Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale insisted that Communicator was a general-purpose client application which contained the Navigator browser) diluted its name recognition and confused users.

Netscape Navigator 4
Netscape Navigator 4

The aging Communicator 4.x code just could not keep up with Internet Explorer 5.0. Typical web pages had become graphics-heavy, often JavaScript-intensive, and were constructed with increasingly complex HTML code that used features designed for specific narrow purposes but redeployed them as global layout tools (in particular this applied to HTML tables, which Communicator struggled to render). The Netscape browser, once regarded as a reasonably solid product, came to be seen as crash-prone and buggy. It didn't help that some versions of it tended to re-download an entire web page to re-render it when the browser window was resized, a considerable burden to dial-up users. In addition, the browser's somewhat dated-looking interface didn't have the modern appearance of Internet Explorer.

By the end of the decade, Netscape's web browser had unquestionably lost its former dominance on the Windows platform. Even on other platforms it was threatened, both by the gradual rise of open source browsers and by the August 1997 agreement that resulted in an investment of $150,000,000 by Microsoft in Apple, which included a requirement that Apple switch the default browser in new installations of Mac OS from Netscape to Internet Explorer. Of greatest significance, though, was Microsoft's massive and ultimately successful campaign to get ISPs and PC vendors to distribute Internet Explorer to their customers instead of Netscape. This was helped in part by Microsoft's investment in making IE brandable, such that it was a quick operation to create a customized version of IE. Also, web developers increasingly used proprietary, Microsoft-only HTML extensions in the web pages they wrote (see also embrace, extend and extinguish.)

Eventually Microsoft emerged victorious in the browser wars, and Netscape was acquired in 1999 by AOL.

Release history

See also

ca:Netscape Navigator de:Netscape Navigator es:Netscape Navigator fr:Netscape Navigator it:Netscape Navigator nl:Netscape Navigator ja:Netscape Navigator pl:Netscape Navigator pt:Netscape Navigator sv:Netscape Navigator zh:网景导航者


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