Dead Man’s Hand
Mozilla has had a long and storied history. Well, no, that’s a lie. Mozilla is in fact only about 6 years old as of this writing, but judging solely by its product repertoire, it has a long life ahead of it.
The open source Mozilla project was founded by Netscape in early 1998 with the announcement that the Netscape browser would be free for all – though it didn’t get the Mozilla name for some time after that. Now, this might seem ludicrous now, but back when the internet was still thought of as a military project, and “world wide web” more often than not referred to one conspiracy theory or another, Mosaic Communications was founded by Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen. Netscape built on the Mosaic project’s idea of making the internet a graphical place, rather than just newsgroups, email, and gopher searches.
Bill Gates’ book at the time mentioned almost nothing of the internet, but Netscape was already planning a business strategy of selling its browser to consumers. Indeed, those of you geeky enough to admit to browsing the computer section in the mid-90s might even remember boxes of Netscape at the local store. Yes, believe it or not, internet browsers once cost money.
Of course, Microsoft, though not as agile as it was in its younger days, responded eventually to Netscape which it had obviously deemed a threat. The early versions of Internet Explorer were clearly inferior to Netscape. There was little, if anything, that recommended Internet Explorer over the Netscape browser – except that they were free. Free goes far in this world. Free is what gets products into schools and offices, what people get used to and accustomed to – and whether you believe it or not, branding works. People begin to feel comfortable with a product, they trust it and even become faithful to it.
Naturally, Microsoft got better at making browsers. At version 3 of each browser, they were roughly equivalent to each other. Netscape did have a very clean and light, if somewhat ugly, email program, but IE loaded pages “faster”. That’s not to say that the total time to load a page was faster, but that IE was good at loading text first, showing images as they were loading. Furthermore, Microsoft’s custom extensions to HTML were becoming more widely accepted. They weren’t critical to web navigation, but they made life easier – if you programmed exclusively for IE. Microsoft FrontPage was released and bundled with Office, meaning that people were putting up millions of their own personal sites with IE HTML extensions that made life more difficult for Netscape users.
When Internet Explorer 4 and Netscape Communicator 4 were released, IE had made up what little technical ground it was behind on with Netscape, while Netscape became a much larger, more bloated application. It’s not that it was clearly worse than IE, but just that it wasn’t better, or lighter, hadn’t changed its rendering code to load on the fly and there was obviously no business opportunity.
Though everyone paid for Internet Explorer when they bought Windows – whether they liked it or not – no one was ready to pay again for Netscape. Netscape had long since been free to individuals, charging only business users, but there would never be a market for its services again.
Netscape Communications released the source code to its software, publicly, in January of 1998. While this gathered much notice among the geek crowd, most outsiders didn’t care. Open Source was only just starting to gain notoriety, and it was painfully obvious to everyone that Netscape had no financial future. The company was sold to AOL – then in the midst of a huge feud with Microsoft – later that year. The Open Source Mozilla Project was an afterthought, especially in light of the disastrous Netscape 6.0 release, based on early Mozilla code. Arguably, given AOL’s cutbacks in the Netscape division after Microsoft paid its settlement in a suit, Netscape was only kept alive because AOL saw a cash-making legal opportunity.
However, it seems that this was not the end, or even the beginning of the end for Mozilla. It was simply the end of a beginning. (This reference to Millennium
is the first, last, and only time I’ll bring that terrible movie to your mind.)