Browser Wars Part 1: When Netscape Met Microsoft

Let’s talk about about the “Browser Wars.” They kicked off in the mid-90s, at a time when the world was just starting to come online. The web was still a fuzzy, undefined medium. Those who did decide to visit the web for the first time found themselves standing at the precipice of a technological arms race between two behemoth browsers. It was a conflict that was public, publicized and wide reaching. Its repercussions would ripple out to web designers, web users and the software community at large for years to come.

If 1995 did feel like the right time to check out the World Wide Web, chances are pretty high that you would be using one browser in particular to do it. Netscape Navigator.

Netscape had a pretty meteoric rise to the top of the web world. The company began pretty soon after software engineer Marc Andreessen graduated from the University of Illinois in 1994. While he was studying there, he had worked on one of the first ever cross platform browsers, NCSA Mosaic, which became the most popular among early browser choices.

So not long after he left Illinois, Andreessen was contacted by Jim Clark, a bit of a legend in the Silicon Valley area. Clark and Andreessen met a few times, and decided that a top of the line commercial browser was exactly what the market needed. So they went back to NCSA, and walked out with a team of top engineers ready to make that happen. By the end of 1994, they had already delivered a first step. Originally slated to be called Mosaic, the browser they released to the world became known (mostly for legal reasons) as Netscape Navigator, and the company, Netscape Communications.

If you were trying to connect to the web in the 90’s, you’d most likely head down to your local computer shop and check out what browsers they had for sale. There was, after all, some alternatives to Netscape. Spyglass Incorporated, for instance, had licensed code from NCSA to create their own commercial browser. Ultimately, this code was rewritten, but it was still released as Spyglass Mosaic.

So you’d check out a few options. But if you asked for a recommendation from the shop’s owner, he’d probably end up pointing you straight to Netscape. And by the way, did you know they were even giving away their browser for free?

In the months leading up to the release of Netscape Navigator in December of 1994, the team began beta testing their browser by giving downloads on their website. It helped them discover bugs quickly, and embraced the openness that kind of went side by side with the World Wide Web. After the browser’s official release, Netscape more or less kept this practice up, making “evaluation” versions of their browser free to download. The real money, after all, was with enterprise licenses and software. So Netscape kind of walked the line there, making profits from individual sales but accessible for free to more savvy users. For better or worse, this would eventually come back to hurt Netscape.

That didn’t stop Netscape from being impressive though. The browser team, most of whom had made their mark writing code at Mosaic, brought things up another notch with Navigator. Already in its first release, the browser sported broader image support, cookies, and snazzy design elements.

At the time, the HTML process was still a bit undefined, so Netscape just rolled full steam ahead. If you were a web designer at the time, there was a lot to get excited about. In the incremental releases that followed in the first half of 1995, Netscape added custom fonts, background colors, and embedded media. By version 2.0, released in August of 1995, they had added HTML frames, image maps, and probably most impressively, the first ever iteration of Javascript.

Coding a site for Netscape browsers was a dream come true for a lot of designers. With each subsequent release, the whole web medium drew into more complete focus. With each step, web designers could add new layers of interactivity and visual polish. True, these websites often would appear broken in other browsers. But by the middle of 1995, Netscape had jumped to an 80% share of the market. It might seem short-sighted now, but at the time, coding for Netscape was the only way to go.

And it showed. By the time Netscape Navigator version 2 was released, the company had actually managed to accrue some revenue. Jim Clark, however, was not one to rest on his laurels. He began pushing his board to take the company public.

It was a bit of an unprecedented move. Netscape had only been a company for a year, and they had only recently began to see real revenue come in. But Netscape did have a few things going for them. For one, they had a kind of cult like following. The press lauded their efforts, and their users evangelized their software. And at the center of it all was Marc Andreessen, who had been propelled to virtual rock star status.

So Netscape went public. For a company of Netscape’s size, their IPO went incredibly well. It exceeded all expectations, and stocks soared throughout the first day. Clark, for his part, made over $600 million that day. Andreessen got to the cover of Time, and began calling for the dawn of a new age when the PC operating system would live entirely on the web, and specifically with Netscape.

And that’s when Netscape got their first real competition from the goliath they knew would eventually come around: Microsoft.

A few months before the IPO, Microsoft engineers paid a visit to Netscape offices. According to Microsoft, their intention was to get a lay of the land as they planned the future of Microsoft and the web.

You see, Microsoft had largely ignored the web (and the Internet at large) for some time. Bill Gates failed to recognize the importance of this new network early on, so the company fell back on their core competency: personal computing. That means, if you used the Windows operating system (like 90% of PC users), you would have to go purchase a browser separately.

Microsoft’s enterprise customers, however, began to ask for this kind of support. And some employees began experimenting with setting up web servers and a central information hub, which would later transform into the Microsoft Network. Then, Marc Andreessen began talking up Netscape not just as a browser, but as a new, cross-platform operating system. He went as far as saying that in the future, Netscape would reduce Microsoft to a set of “poorly debugged device drivers.”

Gates did a quick about face in May of 1995. He sent out a memo to all Microsoft employees titled “The Internet Tidal Wave.” In it, Gates outlined a new future for his company, one connected extricably to the Internet. His paranoia for competition was also clear. Netscape, Gates demanded, was a company that Microsoft would need to “match and beat.”

Bolstered by support from the very top of their company, a few Microsoft engineers got together to start working on a new browser. And that’s why a few of them ended up at a meeting at Netscape.

Over the years, this meeting has become the stuff of legends, primarily because there are two completely different versions of how it went down. In Microsoft’s version, the meeting went off without a hitch. In a long, but productive exchange, the two companies shared ideas and visions for the future.

In Netscape’s version, things are quite a bit different. According to Andresseen’s notes, Microsoft came to them with an ultimatum. Join up or move out of the way. Microsoft offered Netscape a meager sum for their browsers code base. When the team refused, employees from Microsoft threatened to eliminate them from the market by any means necessary.

Now, keep in mind that at the time, Netscape had a very rational fear of competition from Microsoft. Bill Gates had notoriously stomped out adversaries in the past without a second thought. And already, Netscape had begun to consult an anti-trust lawyer to prepare against a possible assault. So it’s possible that Netscape employees framed the meeting to give more credence to their legal battles. But it’s also clear that Microsoft was more hostile in the meeting then they let on.

From that day forward, the two companies rarely spoke. What followed was an escalation of conflict that affected web users, web designers, and even the World Wide Web itself.

Added to the Timeline

August 9, 1995 - Netscape IPO

Though still in its first year as a company, Netscape goes public to soaring stock prices and a boosted valuation. Not long after, Netscape Navigator 2.0 is released which goes on to claim 75% of the browser market.

May 26, 1995 - The Internet Tidal Wave

In a memo sent to all employees, Bill Gates reverses his previous opinion of the Internet, making it the center of Microsoft’s future. In the months following the memo, Microsoft would launch their first web browser, Internet Explorer.

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