The rise and fall of Netscape

Op-ed: Netscape Communications made a huge splash with its IPO 21 years ago Tuesday; today's it's nearly forgo

Netscape Communications, the audacious Silicon Valley startup that introduced the World Wide Web to millions of Americans, is gradually being forgotten. As memories of Netscape and its contributions fade, key moments of the Web's formative days are at risk of being diminished and obscured.

Netscape for a time in the mid-1990s was the Internet's biggest name. It made the "Navigator" Web browser, which once commanded more than 70 percent of the market.

The company traced a flamboyant arc, from obscure founding in 1994 to Wall Street sensation in 1995, to defeat in a lopsided "browser war" with Microsoft Corp., to acquisition by AOL in deal concluded in 1999.

Its meteoric trajectory helped introduce the notion of "Internet time," a sense that everything is accelerated online. Netscape moved at a warp speed, especially in the 16 months from launch in 1994 to initial public offering of its shares 21 years ago tomorrow.

Netscape's IPO was a sensation, the Internet's "big bang." Like no other moment of the emergent digital age, Netscape's IPO thrust the Web into popular consciousness and catalyzed the dot-com boom of the second half of the 1990s.

The IPO, said Newsweek magazine, was "an unprecedented stock frenzy — a gold rush not seen about northern California since Sutter's Mill." The hyperbole was not entirely misplaced.

Five million Netscape shares were offered for sale Aug. 9, 1995, pegged at $28. When trading began late that morning, after a delay of nearly two hours caused by a massive order imbalance, Netscape's shares were selling at $71. By day's end, the share price had eased to $58.25, which still meant a market capitalization of more than $2 billion for a company that had yet to turn a profit.

Netscape's blockbuster debut demonstrated that fortunes were to be made online. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, General Dynamics took 43 years to become a company worth $2.7 billion; Netscape needed "about a minute."

Netscape deserves to be remembered for more than its watershed IPO and pioneering browser. Though its lifespan was abbreviated, Netscape's contributions live on.

These include popularizing the narrative of the "heroic geek," the improbable wunderkind who comes from nowhere to remake the tech world. Netscape's wunderkind was Marc Andreessen, who co-founded the company when he was 22 years old — and became a multimillionaire at 24.

Mr. Andreessen was Netscape's defining and most colorful figure, a technologist with an agile mind who spoke quickly and persuasively, and who relished poking fun at Microsoft. He worked late and got up late. His taste in clothing, it was said, ran to "frat-party ready."

He was less than a year out of the University of Illinois when he met James Clark, a founder of Silicon Graphics. They set up Mosaic Communications, later renamed Netscape. It was a poetic name, pitch perfect for the Web's early days, a time when horizons online seemed almost endless.

Netscape was remarkably innovative. It introduced the encryption tool called Secure Sockets Layer, which is used in completing transactions online. It developed JavaScript, a programming language that helped animate the Web. It introduced the small packets of digital information known as cookies for storage on a user's computer. It pioneered frames for improving the appearance and functionality of Web pages.

Netscape's rise and fall also is a parable about the ruthlessness of the digital world, of clashing with entities that are powerful, unforgiving and very rich. The features and potential of Netscape's browser were seen as profound threats to Microsoft, which only belatedly recognized the Internet's importance. When it did awaken, the software giant and its chairman, Bill Gates, took decided aim at Netscape.

Mr. Gates wrote in 1995, in a private memorandum titled "The Internet Tidal Wave," that Netscape was a "new competitor 'born' on the Internet" and asserted: "We have to match and beat their offerings."

Soon after Netscape's IPO, Microsoft introduced a Web browser of its own, Internet Explorer 1.0. It was a puny rival to Navigator, but subsequent versions of Explorer were more robust and eventually on par, technologically, with Netscape's browser.

Microsoft bundled Explorer with its Windows operating system, a move that sliced into Netscape's market leadership. Microsoft also cajoled Internet service providers to designate Explorer their preferred browsing software.

The U.S. Justice Department sued Microsoft over such practices and won an antitrust judgment in federal court in 1999. By then, it was too late for Netscape. The once-swaggering startup had been beaten in the "browser war" and was on its way to richly undeserved obscurity.

W. Joseph Campbell is a professor at American University in Washington and the author of six books, including "1995: The Year the Future Began" (University of California, 2015). His Twitter handle is @wjosephcampbell.

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