In the beginning, the internet was a very different creature than it is today. For the most part, it would be unrecognizable, consisting mostly of bulletin board systems with no multimedia content aside from a few low-resolution inline images. These systems were disparate and had to be composed separately.
The Internet has changed dramatically with the advent of the World Wide Web. All those previously separate systems were connected, but the world needed a way to “browse” them: a “web browser” was in order. In April 1994, Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark founded Mosaic Communications Corporation. Mosaic was the name of a software that allowed users to access different content on the web. Andreessen had worked on the project while he was with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois.
Clark, who had previously worked at Silicon Graphics, brought several of his colleagues with him to work on Mosaic. Likewise, Andreessen has asked several of his NCSA colleagues to work for the company. In October 1994, the team released Mosaic Netscape 0.9. In December, they renamed the company Netscape Communications and launched version 1.0 of Netscape Navigator.
As true visionaries, the founders of Netscape understood that the web browser would become a revolutionary tool and would set a crucial precedent. Navigator has been made available free of charge to individual, academic and research users.
“By making Netscape freely available to people for personal use, the company builds on the tradition of free Internet software products.” read the 1994 press release.
“Netscape is the first Internet tool that allows the average user with a 14.4 kb modem to work with the Internet interactively”
Commercial users were supposed to purchase browser licenses for $ 99 per user, which included warranty and customer support, but it didn’t last long. Likewise, you may find boxed versions of Netscape in retail stores at some point selling for $ 40 a copy.
For all practical purposes, Navigator was the only publicly available web browser at the time, so it enjoyed a period of practically no competition.
On August 9, 1995, Netscape went public with its IPO selling for $ 28 per share. The stock was supposed to be offered at $ 14 per share, but it was decided to double the price at the last minute. On the first day of trading, the stock soared to $ 75 per share, reaching a market capitalization of $ 3 billion, a staggering first-day gain. Netscape’s IPO sparked widespread investments in Internet companies that later created the dot-com bubble.
It was a magical time, home computer sales were simply booming, and if you were lucky enough, your PC would be equipped with a modem for dial-up Internet access. You would have heard the screeching sound of your telephone line that connects you to the world. Starting Netscape and staring at the throbber animation while loading a single web page.
However, unbeknownst to anyone, Microsoft had been working on its own browser. A few days after Netscape’s initial public offering, it released Windows 95 alongside Internet Explorer 1.0. Competition was fierce when the two companies clashed the following year, with Microsoft always one step behind.
That was until the release of Internet Explorer 3.0 in August 1996. Microsoft had finally caught up with Netscape in terms of browser technology. Slowly but surely, Redmond was stealing market share primarily through Internet Explorer pre-installs on every Windows system.
Market share of Netscape Navigator: 1994 – 2007
Netscape continued to work on both the Browser Navigator and Communicator even as grouping and name changes continued to confuse users. In early 1998, the company announced plans to release the source code for Communicator, which led to the formation of the Mozilla project, an open source enterprise that would later become Firefox.
Netscape’s browser development slowed after releasing the source code, but Microsoft didn’t stop. By the end of 1999, Microsoft had captured most of the market. This change in browser preferences marked the beginning of a long death spiral for Netscape (and eventually Internet Explorer as well).
When Internet Explorer 5.0 hit, it was clear that Microsoft had developed the superior browser. Websites were becoming more graphically intensive, internet speeds were faster, but broadband was still a few years away. By comparison, the Netscape browser was more flawed, slower, and more prone to crashes.
According to records from that time, Microsoft spent over $ 100 million a year on IE development in the late 1990s, with over 1,000 people working on it.
In 1998, the former Internet king was reeling. AOL, formerly known as America Online, saw the potential in saving the browser in error and shelled out $ 4.2 billion in a November 1998 acquisition. However, the opportunity was wasted.
Development of the browser Navigator / Communicator, now called Netscape, was slow. Even with the help of advancements made in the Mozilla project, AOL was unable to release Netscape 6 until 2000, falling behind in the browser wars. For another two years, the browser would struggle in its final agony.
Time to say goodbye
In August 2002 Netscape 7 was released and that was the beginning of a long goodbye. The following year, AOL closed the Netscape division and fired most of the staff. Development continued for another couple of years using advances in Firefox source code, but nothing significant has been released with the brand.
In 2005, AOL outsourced development tasks to an external Canadian company called Mercurial Communications. Mercurial released “Netscape Browser 8” in May 2005. Several iterations occurred over the next two years, with version 8.1.3 being the last update that Mercurial released in April 2007.
Like the mother who simply doesn’t want to let her son escape college without one last goodbye kiss, AOL has resumed developing internally. It renamed the browser to Netscape Navigator and launched version 9 in October 2007. AOL then only continued support for a few months before finally letting go of it.
On February 20, 2008, the company pushed the latest iteration of Netscape Navigator (version 184.108.40.206). The browser has been officially discontinued and with the help of some tools it is possible to migrate data to Flock and Firefox for some time after.
For the curious, Netscape Navigator 9 is still available on the web from various archives. However, please note that this is not the Navigator it used to be. It’s pretty much a renamed Firefox with a Netscape theme. The only things that distinguish it from the browser it is based on are the “link pad” and the mini browser found in the sidebar.
If you are more curious about previous builds and what it was like to browse the Internet in the “old days”, OldVersion.com keeps an archive of stable releases going on all the way back to Netscape 1.0, but check compatibility before attempting to install something this old.