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Death of a Web Icon

Death of a Web Icon

I don’t think there’s a single web designer out there that is truly surprised to hear of the anticipated demise of the Netscape Navigator browser.

The current owners, AOL (who bought Netscape back in 1998), have announced that they will not be providing support for the browser from 1st February 2008, due to, what appears to be, a couple of reasons.

Firstly, after a few years of running Netscape, they sacked the majority of development staff in 2003; many of whom then moved over to Mozilla and worked on the development of FireFox. In fact, 2002/2003 saw Microsoft attain their highest penetration of users at nearly 95%.

Secondly, the market share of Netscape (by users) has dropped consistently since 1995, when Microsoft released their browser, Internet Explorer, and started to bundle it with their operating system.

This has lead, in recent months, to the high profile case which saw Microsoft accused of anti-competitive behaviour.

Thirdly and possibly most crucially, AOL released a bag of cack in Netscape 6.0 back in 2000 following pressure from the Web Standards Project and have never recovered from it.

This core of Netscape had already not been updated since version 4.0 and IE was already catching up fast. IE had a better HTML engine – Netscape had a clever method of compressing images, text and Flash at the server-side, which meant faster browsing (but not faster downloads).

However, by 2001, Internet Explorer version 5.0 was available, bundled with the operating system, and could handle XML, Ajax (although it was called “XMLHttpRequest” at the time) and had a second release, 5.5, only a few months later that could support CSS, 128-bit encryption and had support for HTML standards.

From here, the only way is down for Netscape. AOL dropped developers, many of whom were already working on Gromit – the forerunner to FireFox – and kept only a small core of developers working on the Netscape project.

With Microsoft gaining ground, Netscape developers moving to Mozilla and AOL condoning the use of an antiquated browser core, it was only a matter of time before NS would be phased out.

Additionally, the lack of development work going on at Netscape has meant that the browser is a long way behind with security updates, too.

As it stands, less than 0.6% of web users have Netscape. So the death of the icon should be a quiet affair, with very few people at the funeral.

On the one hand, I feel sorry for the demise of such a great browser. I have fond memories of Netscape and detest IE, too.

However, on the other hand, I’m glad that the torch was passed over to Mozilla and the God that is FireFox. Open Source projects work and have proven to give even monopolies a good run for their money – with FireFox currently having a 16% market share, and many other smaller browsers eating into IE’s piece of the pie.

So, like a grandfather passing on pearls of wisdom to the next generation, it seems that Netscape too has had learnings for other browsers. It was a marvel in its youth, then it started to get a bit paunchy and bald, and now is destined for the great retirement home in the sky.

However, I’d like to remember Netscape as the underdog wonder of its youth,  and I, for one, will be shedding a quiet tear for the loss of a great icon.

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