The Netscape Story: From Mosaic to Mozilla

It seems appropriate that on the last day of the year I should be writing about the end of an era. The news that AOL is ceasing to support its Netscape browsers is not only that, it is the end of a story that encompassed just about every major trend in the rise of the Internet as a mass medium, and that was crucially important for free software.

Netscape Navigator was originally called Mosaic Netscape, a reference to the first popular browser, Mosaic, which came from National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. That had been written by a group of coders led by Marc Andreessen, who later teamed up with one of the founders of Silicon Graphics, Jim Barksdale, to set up Mosaic Communications. Not surprisingly, this name didn't go down to well with the University of Illinois, who threatened the company with legal action. The latter backed down, and changed its name, as well as that of its browser.

To give an idea of the state of Web technology when Netscape released the first beta of its browser in October 1994, here's some of the things that I noted in a piece I wrote at the time:

as well as enabling you to read a document while several graphical images are loaded simultaneously, the program lets you break off the download of a page cleanly to follow a link elsewhere. You can also save viewed documents straight to disc (before you often had to reload), and the Bookmarks feature allows favourite places to be saved to be edited far more easily.

But even more significant than what were important technical advances at the time, there were a couple of other aspects whose revolutionary nature are probably hard for us to appreciate today.

First, the browser proclaimed itself as “performance optimized for 14.4 modems”, referring to the typical download speeds of 14.4 kbit/s at that time. This was truly a breakthrough, because the earlier Mosaic had been designed with relatively high-speed university connections in mind, since browsers were almost exclusively found and used in an academic setting. Netscape Navigator, by contrast, was aimed squarely at ordinary users with PCs and a dial-up Internet connection. It was Netscape Navigator, then, that turned the Internet from an research tool into a mass medium.

Secondly, even though Netscape was a company, Netscape Navigator was freely available. It was therefore one of the first examples of viral distribution, whereby people were encouraged to download a program and pass it on to their friends and colleagues. Netscape was able to do this because it hoped thereby to establish its browser as the de facto standard for both ordinary and business users, and then to sell support to the latter.

In other words, Netscape was one of the first to adopt on a massive scale the business model used today by most open source companies: give away the code, and make money on services. Equally presciently, Netscape released a beta, and invited anyone to submit bug reports – again, a technique straight out of the free software world, but almost unheard for commercial software houses.

Netscape also hoped that by establishing standards with its browser, it could make a lot of money by selling its Netsite Web server, initially for a cool $5000 each. And for a while, it did. It became the first major Internet company, whose August 1995 IPO – the most successful in history - saw the 18-month old startup valued at $3 billion, and fuelled much of the dotcom madness that followed. Moreover, the company's homepage, at, became the centre of the Internet: every day, millions of people went there not just to find out about Netscape and its latest moves, but to follow what was happening online. Netscape not only created the Internet as a mass medium, for a year or two it was the undisputed master of that new universe.

But then the company began to stumble. The rise of of the free Apache Web server, and the fact that Microsoft was giving away its own Internet Information Server (IIS) with Windows NT, severely stunted sales of Netscape's overpriced servers. Things went from bad to worse when Microsoft finally woke up to the importance of the Internet (not least because of Netscape's IPO) and began aggressively pushing its Internet Explorer browser (ironically also based on the original NCSA Mosaic code, as the About box informs us to this day), which was free for everyone, not just end-users, until Netscape began to lose its critically-important market dominance.

Desperate situations call for desperate measures, and in this case it was decided to release most of the Netscape Navigator code as open source (not all, since some was licensed from other parties). One of the people who made that happen at Netscape, Eric Hahn, explained to me when I was writing my history of free software, Rebel Code, how he used to tell a story to explain to others within the company why he was advocating this move:

Two guys go out camping, and they're barefoot, and they run into a bear. And one guy stops and puts on his sneakers. And the other guy looks at him and goes: What are you doing? You can't possibly outrun a bear. And the first person says: I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.

Open sourcing the Navigator code didn't need to be the absolute best solution for Netscape, just better than its current failing strategy.

Netscape's announcement on 22 January 1998 that it was making the source code for its next-generation browser freely available stunned the computing world: until then, free software had been something that was strictly for hackers; the idea that an iconic company like Netscape could make the move was inconceivable until then. Netscape's high-profile decision to bet on free software probably did more to legitimise the use of this hitherto exotic beast within corporates more than anything else before.

Although Netscape released the code on 31 March 1998, the new Mozilla, as it was called, soon proved an object lesson in how not to open source proprietary code. Jamie Zawinski, another of the key figures in opening up Netscape Navigator, and the person who had come up with the Mozilla name back in 1994 – a combination of the original “Mosaic” and Godzilla – wrote in his resignation letter when he left AOL, which had recently bought Netscape in November 1998:

Open source does work, but it is most definitely not a panacea. If there's a cautionary tale here, it is that you can't take a dying project, sprinkle it with the magic pixie dust of “open source,” and have everything magically work out. Software is hard. The issues aren't that simple.

The “hard” nature of software meant that the impact of Mozilla was limited in its first few years of existence. Its most immediate influence was probably thanks to the licence it adopted. The obvious candidate, the GNU GPL, was not an option because of the nature of the code, with some of it licensed from third parties. Instead, Mozilla's Chief Lizard Wrangler, Mitchell Baker, created a new free software licence, the Mozilla Public Licence, which was employed along with the proprietary Netscape Public Licence, in an novel dual-licensing approach that soon became very popular with other projects, especially the later generation of open source enterprise companies.

But once again, there was an important lesson to be learned in the further evolution of Netscape and its offshoot, Mozilla. While the Mozilla browser itself made slow but steady progress, it became increasingly bloated. Thanks to one of the key properties of open source, a group of young hackers were able to fork some of the code to create a sleeker version that eventually turned into the Firefox project (originally called Phoenix, with obvious symbolism, and then Firebird, both names proved difficult because of clashes with other products and projects). With two competing codebases, Darwinian selection took over as more and more users switched to Firefox.

Interestingly, Netscape's browser still existed during this period, basing itself on Mozilla's code. But it was even less satisfactory than Mozilla's, an important factor in the decision more or less to start again with Firefox, as one of the latter's founders, Asa Dotzler, has explained:

One of the primary reasons that Firefox exists is because a few Netscape employees working on the Mozilla project realized back in 2001 and 2002 that Netscape was incapable of, or more precisely, unwilling to, make a really great browser. The reason was pretty simple -- their motivation.

Netscape's only real revenue back then was from advertising at their web properties (, Netscape webmail, etc.) and the big reason they were allowed by AOL to continue building a browser was to drive traffic to those web properties. As a matter of fact, the team making the browser at Netscape reported into the AOL-TW group that owned those web properties.

What this makes plain is that a software company must create a program that serves its users' needs, not its own – a lesson that Netscape started forgetting almost as soon as it had learned it back in 1994. Firefox, by contrast, has focussed on what users want – and don't want. It began by throwing away as much of Mozilla's unnecessary elements as possible, and stripping it down to essentials. It mobilised users not just for testing the code, but for a new kind of open source marketing, notably through the SpreadFirefox site and its high-profile campaigns, like the double-page advertisement in The New York Times.

The steady rise of Firefox's market share – first, a few percent, then 10%, and now touching 40% in some parts of the world – had a major knock-on effect. Through an agreement with Google that makes the latter's search engine the default home page when the program is installed, and the first option for the search engine box in Firefox, the parent organisation, Mozilla Foundation, is receiving tens of millions of dollars each year in fees. As a result, Mozilla has turned from a struggling project into an incredibly powerful force within open source.

Thanks to this new-found wealth, largely a by-product of Google's hugely-successful ad-based business model, Mozilla has the luxury of being able to widen of its ambitions far beyond simply creating a cool browser. For example, two recent announcements from Mozilla labs are explicitly about blurring the line between traditional desktop and the new, browser-based Web applications. The first is Prism:

Personal computing is currently in a state of transition. While traditionally users have interacted mostly with desktop applications, more and more of them are using web applications. But the latter often fit awkwardly into the document-centric interface of web browsers. And they are surrounded with controls–like back and forward buttons and a location bar–that have nothing to do with interacting with the application itself.

Mozilla Labs is launching a series of experiments to bridge the divide in the user experience between web applications and desktop apps and to explore new usability models as the line between traditional desktop and new web applications continues to blur.

The second is Weave:

As the Web continues to evolve and more of our lives move online, we believe that Web browsers like Firefox can and should do more to broker rich experiences while increasing user control over their data and personal information.

One important area for exploration is the blending of the desktop and the Web through deeper integration of the browser with online services.

We’re now launching a new project within Mozilla Labs to formally explore this integration. This project will be known as Weave and it will focus on finding ways to enhance the Firefox user experience, increase user control over personal information, and provide new opportunities for developers to build innovative online experiences.

These are both about replacing the current desktop environment with a Web-based approach – or, more bluntly, to make underlying operating systems (like Windows) irrelevant, and turning Firefox itself into the platform.

Interestingly, it was Netscape's attempt to create something it called the “Webtop” - a Net-based layer above the desktop – that helped rouse Microsoft from its Internet slumbers, and led, ultimately, to Netscape's destruction. Now, though, things are rather different. Mozilla is not a company, and it sells no products. As such, it is not possible for Microsoft to undermine it by giving away its own products, nor can it make the problem go away by simply buying its rival and closing it down.

This, then, the biggest difference between Netscape's Mosaic, and today's Mozilla Firefox. The former was proprietary and vulnerable, while the latter is free and immune to the forces that led to Netscape's sale in 1998, its rapidly dwindling importance in the online world thereafter, and ultimately to the recent coup de grace administered to the once great Netscape Navigator. Mosaic may be well and truly dead, but Netscape's dinosaur-like mascot and the code that bears its name live on.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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