The History of the Browser Wars: 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. As Netscape’s success grew, Microsoft got their own browser ready.

It was called Internet Explorer. And version 1 was released fifteen days after Netscape’s IPO. The browser team at Microsoft was still very small, so the code itself was (somewhat ironically) licensed from Spyglass Mosaic, a fork of the code Andreessen himself had worked on.

IE was, at first, far from impressive. It was released as an at-retail extension for Windows ’95, and initially, did very little to damage Netscape’s market share. With a choice between a world class browser everyone’s talking about, and a slower, pared down version that integrated with Windows, most people chose the former.

Then came December 7, 1995. Hot off the heels of version 2 of Internet Explorer, which showed some major improvements in a few short months, Bill Gates held a press conference. His intent was to lay out Microsoft’s web strategy. Those out there with some knowledge of World War II might recognize that date. It’s the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks. Naturally, the press had a field day.

“Microsoft Storms the Web,” one headline read. “Microsoft Takes War to the Net” read another.

In fact, the tone was a bit more restrained than that (but maybe only a little). During the press conference, Gates announced that Microsoft would be even more committed to the web in the coming months. The Internet was Microsoft’s next big play. As for the competition? Well, it was pretty clear that Gates didn’t want to just enter the marketplace. He wanted to dominate it.

For the next few years, Netscape and Microsoft waged war (these were the Browser Wars after all). It was not uncommon to see a new minor release of each browser every month. For most users, this battle raged way over their heads. All they saw where a whirlwind of new features. There came esoteric plugin support, proprietary presentational HTML elements and all sorts of unique hacks. Even when one browser or the other supported web standards, they did so only at a surface level. So when features were “supported” by both browsers, they would often be interpreted and rendered in completely different ways.

Now imagine, for a moment, that you were a web designer at this time. You’re still trying to work your way through the HTML specification, which is at this point still kind of dry and vague. But then Netscape says you can add a scrolling banner to the top of your site! So you add it. But it doesn’t work in Internet Explorer. But in Internet Explorer, you can take advantage of CSS positioning. Of course, that wouldn’t look right in Netscape’s browser.

Is it any wonder that in the mid to late 90’s it was common to see banners on sites that read “Best displayed on Netscape” or “Best displayed on Internet Explorer.” Without standards to guide an ever confounding number of features, and with the two companies mostly at odds, support was fractured and uneven. Many developers had no choice but to tailor their websites for one browser or the other. Of course, it was ultimately the users that suffered.

Meanwhile, the two browsers only scaled up their efforts.

By version 3, Netscape had introduced a good amount of features still in use today. Things like tables and frames, autofilling forms, and a more advanced version of Javascript. The release of this version also marked Netscape’s peak in terms of browser share, a startling 90%.

After that, Netscape began to focus on accompanying features. Starting with version 4, they added suite of tools to their browser, bundled together into Netscape Communicator. Communicator included tools for email, IRC and news. For many, this meant the convenience of having everything in one place. For others, this made the browser bloated and unwieldy.

Microsoft took a slightly different route. Instead of adding extensions to their browser, they leveraged their position in the personal computing marketplace. Which, in the 90’s, was basically a stranglehold. So even as Internet Explorer improved and caught up to Netscape, Microsoft started pushing their distribution channels. They gave away the browser for free to PC manufacturers and Internet Service Providers to bundle into their hardware. They lowered the price of their browser for Microsoft Windows users. And they paid large web portals like AOL to push users toward IE.

Then, with the release of Internet Explorer 3.0, Microsoft dropped the hammer. They included this version, for free, bundled right into the Windows ’95 operating system. No longer would users have to go to their local electronics shop and chose from a few competitive options. They would have a browser built right in that, frankly, works almost as well as any other option out there. For free. It even boasted some new unique features, like fairly broad CSS support.

All at once, Netscape’s pricing model completely fell apart.

On the morning of October 1, 1997, Netscape engineers came to their offices to kind of a strange sight. The night before, Microsoft employees had been celebrating the release of IE 4. A few of them hoisted a giant Internet Explorer logo model onto the back of a truck, brought it to Netscape and dumped it in their corporate office’s fountain. Later that day, Netscape engineers hoisted their own Mozilla logo on top of the E and added a sign. It said “Netscape: 72, Microsoft: 18,” the current split of the browser market. But that changed. And fast. The release of Internet Explorer 4 for free, and Microsoft’s aggressive push to distribute it, started to turn things in their favor.

Netscape continued to innovate, but they knew they couldn’t keep up. So in January of 1998, they open sourced their browser, and began giving it away for free. But even that wasn’t enough. By the end of 1998, Microsoft had claimed 50% of the market. By 1999, that had risen to almost 80%. The tables had officially turned.

Microsoft’s efforts wouldn’t go completely unchecked. For one thing, Microsoft had licensed their code from Spyglass with the promise of royalties from total sales. When they started giving away their browser for free, Spyglass sued for the share of profits they would now never see. They settled out of court, but it wasn’t long before Spyglass faded from existence altogether.

Then, of course, were the charges brought against Microsoft by the United States Government. In the summer of 1998, Microsoft went on trial for violating antitrust laws and a consent decree from a few years previous. The US Department of Justice argued that by giving away their browser for free, and bundling it into their operating system, they forced consumers to use their product and pushed competitors out of the market. This, along with the hostile pressure that Microsoft put on manufacturers to include Internet Explorer in their platforms, created a monopoly position for the company.

Microsoft’s argument was that Internet Explorer was an integral piece of their operating system, and that Windows ’98 couldn’t function without it. But that argument proved to be flimsy. In his deposition, Gates often came off as arrogant and evasive, and the evidence against Microsoft seemed staggering. Executives from multiple companies, including AOL, testified that Microsoft had pressured them into prioritizing Internet Explorer. These companies were told that they were either with or against Microsoft. The trial would last for years, and Gates caught most of the pressure.

In 2000, the presiding Judge issued his findings of fact, which, among other things, found that Microsoft was abusing a monopoly position, and that it should be broken up into two companies. This was eventually overturned by an appeals court, but it was enough to rattle Bill Gates for years to come, and leave Microsoft reeling from the process.

In November of 1998, Netscape was sold to AOL for $4.2 billion. It was the end of an era, and, as it turns out, the beginning of the end. Netscape continued to release new versions of their browser for years to come. But as their priorities shifted towards enterprise software, the browser suffered. Eventually, Microsoft wrestled almost complete control over the market.

By the early 2000’s, the Browser Wars ended, and a period of stagnation followed. But just on the horizon, a few open source browsers waited in the wings, ready to offer another bout of competition.

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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