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Netscape Navigator

Netscape Navigator is a web browser that once dominated the market but is now barely more than a niche product.

Netscape began as the flagship product of the Netscape Communications Corporation and was loosely based on Mosaic. 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.

Through the late 1990s, Netscape made sure that Navigator remained the technical leader amongst web browsers. Important new features included frames (version 2.0), cookies, and JavaScript (version 3.0). Although those and other innovations eventually became W3C standards and were copied by other browsers, they were often controversial. Netscape, according to critics, was more interested in bending the web to its own de facto standards (and thus marginalising the commercial competition) than it was in improving user experience of the Navigator product. Consumer rights advocates were particularly critical of the ability to invade individual privacy that cookies gave to commercial websites.

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The Browser Wars

In the marketplace, however, these concerns had little effect; Netscape Navigator remained the unchallenged leader with approximately 90% market share. Eventually, however, Microsoft entered the browser business. With the stated intention to "cut off Netscape's air supply", Microsoft released their own Internet Explorer, and soon made it a free (and in fact compulsory) part of Windows 95. Starved of revenue, the Netscape company was eventualy sold to giant media conglomerate AOL.

Netscape Navigator 1.22 screenshot (magnify)

Internet Explorer, initially clearly inferior to Navigator, improved rapidly. Version 3.0 (1996) was a usable substitute, and version 5.0 (1998) was very large and bloated by the standards of the day but superior in almost all respects. Meanwhile, Netscape's own browser development stagnated. Distracted by commercial considerations, Netscape's coders made only minor changes to Navigator, and worked away on the Netscape Communicator project - a major re-write of Navigator that added email and HTML composition modules.

When Communicator was eventually released, the new features were largely ignored by users, but the size increase and speed reduction were noted. More and more people switched to Internet Explorer - which was no smaller but was at least more stable in 5.0 form, and faster in two different senses: much of the program load time was disguised by having Windows pre-load Explorer code at system boot time; and the Internet Explorer page rendering engine was better at drawing complex pages (especially ones composed of nested HTML tables).

By the end of the decade, Navigator 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 partial buy-out by Microsoft of Apple, which included a requirement that Apple switch their default browser from Netscape to Explorer. (An earlier, and perhaps more severe blow had been AOL's switch into the Microsoft camp - this was before AOL bought Netscape.) Underlying all of this, though, was the massive and ultimately successful campaign to get ISPs to distribute Explorer instead of Netscape, and web developers to incorporate proprietary, Microsoft-only code in web pages.

The elderly Navigator 4.x code just couldn't keep up. Typical web pages had become graphics-heavy, often Java-intensive, and were constructed with masses of extraordinarily complex HTML code that used constructs designed for specific narrow purposes and redeployed them as global layout tools - in particular this applied to HTML tables, which Navigator struggled to render. Netscape, once regarded as a reasonably solid product, came to be seen as crash-prone[?] and buggy.

The open source revolution

Netscape Navigator 7.0.2 screenshot (magnify)

In 1998, Netscape bowed to the inevitable and abandoned the effort to make the browser a paying commercial product. Instead, Netscape split off most of the Navigator code and put it under an open source license as Mozilla. In the short-term, this achieved nothing. After the code was branched, it was decided to abandon the attempt to drag the elderly Netscape core into the 21st century, and the Mozilla team took on the massive task of completely rewriting the browser code from scratch. The decision was criticized by some observers on the grounds that it allowed Microsoft to win the browser war on the Windows platform. Others believed that the war was already lost in any case, and that it was better to create a new and more capable product before returning to the fray.

With much fanfare, Netscape's new owners AOL released Netscape 6 in 2000, based on early Mozilla code. The product was a massive disappointment: it was huge, slow, unstable[?], and (in the eyes of most) visually unappealing. This was not surprising as the Mozilla core itself was nowhere near release-ready and itself unstable.

Netscape 6.1, released in 2001, addressed the stability problems, but was otherwise unimproved and could not overcome Netscape 6's bad reputation. It was generally ignored by the market.

In 2002, AOL released Netscape 7. It was based on a very stable Mozilla core and bundled with extras like integrated AOL Instant Messenger, integrated ICQ and Radio@Netscape. It remains to be seen how the market will respond to a product that is essentially an older, slower, and much bigger version of Mozilla with integrated tools to access proprietary services owned by AOL, particularly now that there are competent non-Microsoft alternatives in Opera and Mozilla.

Today on the Windows platform, Netscape Navigator is a minor player. There is some use of recent versions, but most remaining Netscape use under Windows is by people who steadfastly refuse to switch from the elderly 4.x. (The newer browsers generally require more powerful machines for a decent performance) On other platforms, particularly ones like Linux which do not have Internet Explorer bundled, Netscape remained the dominant browser for much longer. Only in the last year or two has the rise of alternatives like Mozilla, Konqueror and Amaya given it strong competition.

The development of the Netscape browser and the company was described in the book Netscape Time by Jim Clark and Owen Edwards[?] (Hardcover ISBN 0312199341; Paperback ISBN 0312263619).

The current version (since Junw 2003) is 7.1 (http://home.netscape.com/computing/download/index) which is based on the Mozilla 1.4 code.

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