eWEEK 30: Netscape Navigator Browser Introduces Millions to Web Surfing

eWEEK 30: Netscape Navigator, the browser that introduced millions to Web surfing, reigned supreme in the mid 1990s until it was eclipsed by Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

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At the beginning of the Internet era, one company became synonymous with both great success and great failure. That company was Netscape.

In the middle of the 1990s, Netscape completely dominated the Web browser landscape and was used by nearly every human on the planet that wanted to explore the Internet. But by the end of the 1990's, Netscape was a mere shadow of what it was a few years earlier.

The rise and fall of Netscape was one of the great technology stories that eWEEK followed closely in the 1990s. Netscape grew explosively because it provided an easy-to-use product at just the moment it was needed, when millions of people were getting online to create and visit the thousands of Websites that were springing up every day.

It's a story about the early triumph of innovation and the rise of the Web itself, in an era when a desktop monopoly was still able to control the destiny of the technology marketplace. It's also an object lesson about how quickly an enterprise can fail when it depends almost entirely on a single product for most of its revenue.

Though it's hard for many people to imagine now, the early World Wide Web that Tim Berners-Lee created in 1991 by building the world's first Website lacked the basic tools that people needed to discover and browse Websites. That changed in March 1993, when Marc Andreessen, who later went on to found Netscape and today is one of the IT industry's most active venture investors, first publicly announced the NCSA Mosaic Web browser.

"NCSA Mosaic provides a consistent and easy-to-use hypermedia-based interface into a wide variety of information sources, including Gopher, WAIS, World Wide Web, NNTP/Usenet news, Techinfo, TeXinfo, FTP, local file systems, Archie, telnet, tn3270 and others," Andreessen wrote in a now-famous usenet message that gave birth to the browser era.

That first public release of NCSA Mosaic opened the eyes of many to the profound possibilities of the Internet, including those outside of academia and scientific research. One of those people was James Clark, the founder of Silicon Graphics, who together with Andreessen decided to turn the browser into a business and formed Mosaic Communications in April 1994.

Mosaic Communications announced the Netscape Navigator browser on Oct.13, 1994, as a free tool for anyone to use.

"Making Netscape freely available to Internet users is Mosaic Communications' way of contributing to the explosive growth of innovative information applications on global networks," Andreessen, then-vice president of technology at Mosaic Communications, said in a press release on that date. "We expect Netscape's ease of use to spark another major leap in Internet usage by making the net a powerful tool for a broader base of users."

Andreessen also prophetically stated that, "by incorporating security and advanced functionality, Netscape now lays the foundation for commerce on the net." The security component that Netscape first invented—Secure Sockets Layer (SSL)—has been the backbone of all Internet commerce ever since.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.