Tuesday, March 04, 2008

End of an Era

This past week has been a sad week for web users, with the final death knell for Netscape. For some it is a sad day and the end of an era, others would say a well flogged old horse has been finally put out of its misery.

When I first starting browsing the web there was really only ever Netscape, it was launched in 1994 and dominated the browser market for most of the nineties, offering better features, faster browsing and generally being more advanced than any of its competitors.

For most internet users today that probably seems pretty hard to believe, but there was an internet before Microsoft Internet Explorer, which itself wasn't launched until 1995 and didn't really start to compete with Netscape until version 3 (IE3), released in 1996. At its peak in 1996 Netscape accounted for 90% of the browser market (at the same time IE had about a 4% market share).

Netscape just had more to offer back then, it was a full internet suite with a built in mail reader, very similar to Mozilla Thunderbird of today, a WYSIWIG HTML editor, that surprisingly at the time was a pretty good match for Microsoft's paid for, Frontpage.

For me Netscape Communicator 4.7, released 1999, was the one that remember most, chiefly because it was the one that I used the longest and also because it was just about the last version of Netscape that I used as my main browser.

This was the peak of the so called 'First Browser War' and unfortunately Netscape dropped the ball. Netscape 5 was in development for a long time, before finally being scrapped. By the time Netscape was purchased by AOL and work began on Netscape 6, Internet Explorer 5 was out (1998) and it pretty much signalled the end of Netscape. By version 5.5 in 2000, I too was using Microsoft Internet Explorer.

To be fair to Netscape, Microsoft always had the advantage, not only were they a huge company, they accounted for around 90% of the operating system market and so included IE with the operating system. Few people felt the need to download a new browser when one was already included with the OS, particularly during the days of dial up.

By the end of 1998 IE had a 50% market share, Netscape had dipped below 50% for the first time. Netscape 6 arrived in 2000, I used it but unfortunately it was a bug ridden flop and so IE5.5 became my browser of choice, as it did for most people. By 2001 Netscape had just 10% of the market share and the browser war was over.

Personally I was glad to see the end of the browser war, not just because it meant that I had just one browser to choose from but because it made website design easier. During the browser wars, website design became a nightmare. Netscape and IE followed their own, mostly incompatible rules, meaning that it was extremely difficult to get a website to display properly in both browsers. This was of the course the days of the 'Best Viewed In' banners. Things were able to move on once again in website design, after the several years of stagnation during the browser wars.

I did download Netscape 7 in 2002 and even Netscape 9 in 2007, but just for nostalgia really. They were unimpressive and so seldom used. By then I had been using Mozilla Firefox for 3 years as my primary browser. With Firefox, Mozilla had done what Netscape had failed to do since the mid nineties, produce a ground breaking and advanced browser, which revitalised the browser market. At the time of my switch to Firefox, Netscape accounted for less than 1% of the browser market and to all intents and purposes, was dead in the water.

Whilst I agree that perhaps the end of Netscape is long overdue, it is sad that the only browser that truly matched IE, is no longer with us. Although a far better browser, Firefox only accounts for about 18% of the browser market share, and will take years to chip away at Internet Explorer's huge lead.



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