The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

How important was Netscape?

Technologist Brendan Eich, the developer of JavaScript programming language and a founder of the Mozilla Foundation, asserted in a blog post the other day that Netscape “changed history” — and it’s futile to mount a credible argument to the contrary.

Netscape NavigatorNetscape, the mid-1990s maker of Navigator, the first widely popular browser, was critically important to the technology, the culture, and the perceptions of the early Web.

Eich’s post at the online information site Quora was in response to the question: “How important was Netscape?”

His comments were technical, pointing to JavaScript and the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption protocol as “two things Netscape created.”

Both indeed were important innovations which, respectively, helped animate the Web and helped make Internet transactions more secure. Both, as Eich noted, are “still fundamental to the Web and ecommerce today.”

He added: “To say Netscape did not ‘change history’ is to say Napoleon (even though he failed — twice!) did not change history.”

Fair enough.

But Eich may have been too modest; he might well have expanded his discussion to address how Netscape was critically important to the early Web in ways less tangible than JavaScript and SSL.

For starters, there was the evocative name: “Netscape” was perfect for the early Web, suggesting that the online world was, as Steve Silberman once wrote, much more than “a display, a tool, an application, an e-anything, but a place — a newly discovered, unmapped infinitude.”

“‘Netscape,'” he wrote, effectively “announced that the frontier was open for exploration and habitation.”

The Navigator browser brought the Internet to untold millions of people, and I’d wager that many of those mid-1990s first-time users still think fondly of Netscape and the funky, outer-space logo that lit up with what looked to be comets or shooting stars when the browser was making a connection.

Eich

Eich: Too modest?

The novelist Charles Yu recalled in a brief essay published last year his introduction to Netscape:

“I entered college in 1993 and graduated in 1997. Halfway through, the Internet became a thing. Netscape said: ‘Here you go, here’s a door to a brand-new place in the existence of the universe. We just started letting people in. Go ahead, it’s fun. It’ll keep getting bigger for the rest of your life.’”

Netscape was, as I write in my forthcoming book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, “an immensely interesting company” as well. Its leading figures, Mike Cassidy of the San Jose Mercury News once observed, seemed “right out of central casting.”

Netscape’s chairman was James H. Clark, a founder of Silicon Graphics who in 1994 was looking for the next big thing. He seeded Netscape with $5 million and, as I note in 1995, “infused the company with a certain ardor.” Clark recruited James Barksdale, a Mississippi native, from McCaw Cellular Communications to be Netscape’s chief executive. Barksdale was modest, gentlemanly, and “as mellow as shoofly pie,” one technology writer said.

Netscape’s defining and most colorful figure was its co-founder, Marc Andreessen, a young technologist with an agile mind who talked persuasively and fast. He was, Newsweek magazine declared at the end of 1995, “the uber-super-wunder whiz kid of cyberspace.”

Andreessen was a big guy, standing 6 feet 4. He was 24-years-old in 1995 and was full of amusing quirks and habits. He worked late, got up late. His taste in clothes, it was said, ran to “frat-party ready.”

But Andreessen and Netscape’s stable of young programmers helped define the swagger and flamboyance of the early Web.

They relished poking at the lumbering giant that was Microsoft, and projected an aura that almost anything was possible online. Suggesting as much was Netscape’s eye-popping IPO — its initial public offering of shares — on August 9, 1995. At the time, the company was not quite 16-months-old and hadn’t come close to turning a profit.

Netscape’s share price opened at $71 on the day of the IPO and climbed to $74.75 before closing at $58.25 — a smashing debut by any measure. The Wall Street Journal observed that it had taken General Dynamics 43 years to become a corporation worth $2.7 billion in the stock market; it had taken Netscape “about a minute.”

Netscape’s IPO had the effect of suddenly demonstrating that the Web was a place of great potential, where riches were waiting to be made.

The IPO, moreover, called attention to the Web for millions of people who in 1995 were only vaguely aware of the Internet: It brought the Web into popular consciousness. As Wired magazine recalled in 2005: “The brilliant flash [of Netscape’s IPO] revealed what had been invisible only a moment before: the World Wide Web.”

MercNews_10Aug1995

Netscape’s IPO — and Jerry Garcia’s death

Reports about the IPO made the front page the following day in many newspapers, including the Mercury News (see left). But the Mercury News gave top billing not to Netscape but to news the death of Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s co-founder and front man.

If Netscape’s browser opened the Web to millions of users, the company’s ill-fated struggle with Microsoft seemed to illustrate the risks that upstarts faced in taking on entrenched entities that were powerful, formidable, and very rich.

Within three years of the IPO, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer had become the Web’s most popular browser, fully erasing Netscape’s once-dominant market share. The “writing was on the wall,” Eich was quoted as saying 10 years later. “Microsoft was driving their monster truck after us and they were about to pin us to the wall.”

And that Microsoft did.

Netscape’s stunning run as the flamboyant startup of Silicon Valley reached an inglorious end in November 1998, when Barksdale announced that America Online was acquiring the company in a stock deal worth more than $4 billion. The once-cocksure Netscape was thus reduced to a forlorn and ultimately forgotten outpost of AOL.

The compressed arc of Netscape’s rise and fall was stunning, and emblematic of “Internet time,” a phrase and a notion popular in the late 1990s that everything moved faster online. And yet it was, as technology writer Brian McCullough correctly noted a few months ago, “the first Internet startup that mattered.”

WJC

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