The rise and fall (and rise) of Netscape

This week for Fun Friday, we take a look back at the early days of the internet.  I’m talking about the days when only the geekiest of geeks was willing to outfit a computer with the necessary extra bits in order to get online.

Back in those days, computers were thought of largely as standalone devices and just getting online was a chore. It tied up your phone, which was of course your only line since no one had a cell yet. Not only that, before you got online you were treated to this symphony:

and you just had to hope it worked.

Before Netscape

Before Netscape, before the internet, there were online services. These were largely text-based and hard to get through. They were proprietary and if you had one, you couldn’t talk to anyone who had another. America Online (AOL) was one of those early services, and I bring them up because they’ll be important later.

In the early 1990s, researchers at CERN in Switzerland proposed a radical way of letting people communicate with each other. The internet had been around in universities and government facilities since the late 1960s, but it was hard to find what you were looking for. Sir Tim Berners-Lee and others created a system which seems so simple today, but had never been done at the scale they did it.

The original World Wide Web project was composed of two basic ideas.  The first was that every computer could be located using a Universal Resource Locator (URL) made up of plain text. The second was that you could use a simple language that displayed things on the screen and let you use a mouse to navigate to other servers. As simple as this all sounds, it changed the world. The first web page is still online, and you can see it here.

This is where the fun begins

Sure, it was fun to click through stuff, but those first web pages were pretty boring. It took a group of pioneers to add things like graphics and formatting. Those folks were part of Netscape, the first commercially viable web company. Some came from the original web browser project, some from other industries. And what they created was arguably the first usable web browser. You know it as Netscape Navigator.

The story of Netscape

You can learn more about the story of Netscape, as well as the legacy of its creators, in this video:

It’s a pretty good piece but I’ll tell ya, the narrator sounds like they have a serious addiction to cold medicine. I recommend you watch it at 1.25 speed, which will make it seem almost normal.

If you don’t know how to do that, click on the gear at the lower right and set the speed to 1.25. It should look like this:

Here there be spoilers

I’m going to wrap most of the rest of this article in spoiler tags in case you want to watch it for yourself.

Click to read about what happened to Netscape

The funny thing here is that Netscape ended up being bought by AOL, which was part of Time Warner before Time Warner was sold to AT&T. AOL itself was sold to Verizon, AT&T’s competitor. Along the way they sold most of the Netscape patents to Microsoft. Microsoft was the company that squashed Netscape into bits in the first place. But then Microsoft offloaded a lot of that stuff and it was bought by Facebook. In the meantime, the codebase from Netscape was eventually morphed into the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, which created Firefox. So in many ways, Firefox “is” Netscape with another name.


It just goes to show that some ideas never really go away, and that sometimes, they pop up in the strangest places.


About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.