Sunday, April 6, 2014

20th Anniversary of Netscape’s Founding

Brian McCullough interviews Netscape’s founding engineers:

Though not technically the first internet startup per-se, Netscape was the first internet startup that mattered. It produced the first widely popular internet application, Netscape Navigator, and it grew symbiotically with the explosion in popularity of the World Wide Web. Navigator was the way millions of people around the world were introduced to the web. Many web technologies and standards, such as as SSL, Java, Javascript, open APIs and support for online media, were innovations that Navigator made mainstream.

[…]

As part of the Internet History Podcast project, I’ve collected oral histories from the founding engineers who made Netscape possible 20 years ago. I’ve lightly edited and transcribed the interviews chronologically below, but if you want to hear each interview in its entirety, you can do so.

[…]

There was a definite schism between us young kids and especially Tim Berners-Lee, who wanted to keep the web essentially lowest common denominator. I wouldn’t say that he was opposed to adding images and other things, but he was opposed to the methodology at which it was going about. We had a bunch of discussions around that at the conference and came up with some interesting ideas. That’s where the idea of <alt> text came from.

[…]

Marc basically sends mail, says, “Hey, I met Jim Clark. He’s a cool guy. He’s looking to start up a company. And I’m talking with him about what we should do.” At that point Jim was very interested in doing interactive TV. He was trying to convince Marc to go do interactive TV. And the more they talked about it, the more Marc basically just said, “What we really should do is go do Mosaic right. Do a Mosaic killer.”

[…]

We were originally accused of taking the [Mosaic] code and then we said, “No, we haven’t take a line of code.” And we were audited and of course proven that we didn’t. But we didn’t want to take any of the code, that’s the thing! We wanted to start from scratch. We wanted to do it right. There wasn’t any code we wanted to take. Look at how it works much much better. Obviously, it’s not the same code base!

[…]

Marc [Andreessen] basically drove a lot of that discussion. One was obviously a shared code base between the three versions, which is pretty much unheard of at that point in time. That you’d have Mac, Windows and Unix all sharing a code base. The biggest other thing was the invention of SSL and that basically, if this is going to be a commercial product, we have to come up with how to make it secure—such that people can use it for things like putting their credit card in and shopping and business and all the stuff that people use it for today. Fast was the other thing. We realized as we worked on it that there were a lot of things we had done wrong in terms of how we had written Mosaic and that we could get at least a 10x perceived speed improvement in redoing it.

[…]

At the time, Marc Andreessen was really throwing the gauntlet down at Microsoft. Foreshadowing what I think eventually has come to pass, which is that that whole native platform is considerably less a focus than the web platform. He made this well-publicized comment about turning Windows into a poorly debugged set of device drivers.

[…]

But the funny thing about us and Microsoft was, from day one, people would ask who our competition was and our answer pretty much was Microsoft at that point. And people would look at us like we’re crazy. First of, you’re 20 guys and they don’t have any clue what the web was. But we fundamentally understood that if we succeeded that we were going to be in their crosshairs. They were the 800 pound gorilla and anyone who succeeded was in their crosshairs. There wasn’t a product category in software that existed that if you succeeded, you know, Microsoft was your competition.

[…]

I’ve always been a Mac guy. Although everybody laughed at me. The whole Mac Daddy? That was not a cool thing at Netscape. Everybody was like, “Why are you working on that crappy little computer with no virtual memory?” And then Apple decides to ship Internet Explorer with the Mac because Microsoft gave them like a hundred million dollar investment. That was kind of the stuff we were fighting. We made some technical mistakes here and there but the fight was really lost in Microsoft’s kind of business assault. Cutting off our air supply.

9 Comments

"And then Apple decides to ship Internet Explorer with the Mac because Microsoft gave them like a hundred million dollar investment."

FWIW, I strongly got the impression at the time that the IE deal was much more about Mac Office than about the $100M, but I could well have been wrong.

Bryan Schmiedeler

It was both.

All the Netscape guys seem to be in denial about how (on Windows, at least) IE was clearly superior starting with version 4, maybe even as early as version 3 in fact. That's why they lost, not because of licensing deals. First Firefox and then Chrome achieved very substantial market share without any dealmaking just by being better than the competition - something Netscape was never able to do.

"All the Netscape guys seem to be in denial about how (on Windows, at least) IE was clearly superior starting with version 4"

Default setting on the 90%+ OS didn't hurt.

"First Firefox and then Chrome achieved very substantial market share without any dealmaking just by being better than the competition - something Netscape was never able to do."

Coming after the antitrust stuff helped to no small degree.

And, on the classic Mac side, IE started out a bit rough but before long I think it was clearly superior.

"And, on the classic Mac side, IE started out a bit rough but before long I think it was clearly superior."

Fully agreed. Ended up being quite a nice app. But again, both pre-installation and default setting certainly didn't hurt market share...

"Coming after the antitrust stuff helped to no small degree."

I think it was less "the antitrust stuff" and more that Silicon Valley had given up on charging for consumer software. The reason that Netscape eventually came to suck was that once the suits realized they weren't going to be able to charge money for it, they freaked out and basically destroyed it. Opera also never achieved share (despite being superior) because they insisted on charging money. Firefox and Chrome, on the other hand, never worried about making money.

Ironically, Microsoft, the first company to get rich by selling software, was also (with IE) one of the first companies to start making that business model obsolete.

"The reason that Netscape eventually came to suck was that once the suits realized they weren't going to be able to charge money for it, they freaked out and basically destroyed it."

Sure. No doubt. But the fact that Microsoft was able to pre-install, make default, and make it hard for other browsers to operate sure made Microsoft's browser monopoly business model easy to work. But again, that business model only really worked before "the antitrust stuff". No coincidence that the browser monopoly disappeared soon after "the antitrust stuff".

(In the absence of "the antitrust stuff", I think we'd have been looking at a world where Microsoft was able to grab a cut of the e-commerce you did with their OS, just as Apple is now able to do.)

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