Netscape Navigator reaches the end of the line

AOL LLC Friday pulled the plug on Netscape Navigator, the Web browser that once owned the lion’s share of the market and that was the focus of a landmark federal antitrust case against Microsoft Corp.

In an announcement posted to AOL’s blog for the browser, Tom Drapeau, the director of the company’s Netscape brand, said the team is ending development and would cease issuing security updates as of Feb. 1, 2008.

“Given AOL’s current business focus and the success the Mozilla Foundation has had in developing critically-acclaimed products, we feel it’s the right time to end development of Netscape-branded browsers, hand the reigns [sic] fully to Mozilla and encourage Netscape users to adopt Firefox,” Drapeau said.

He said all support would end in just over a month and urged current Netscape users to migrate to Mozilla Corp.’s Firefox. Netscape Navigator traces its lineage to 1994, when Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark formed Mosaic Communications Corp. around the Web browser that Andreessen had built. The first version, complete with name change to allay concerns by the University of Illinois over the Mosaic moniker, was released on Dec. 15, 1994.

By mid-1995, Netscape essentially owned the Internet, accounting for more than 80% of all browsers used.

Microsoft Corp., however, launched the initial edition of Internet Explorer (IE) in August 1995 and gradually whittled at Netscape’s lead until IE’s share slipped past the older browser at the end of 1998, according to statistics compiled by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the campus where Andreessen co-authored the first graphical browser, Mosaic.

In January 1998, Netscape Communications Corp. announced that it would cease charging for the browser — in large part because Microsoft gave away IE — and said that future development would be open-source. Inside a month, Netscape formed the Mozilla Foundation and handed the browser code to the open-source nonprofit.

Later that year, AOL bought Netscape in a deal valued then at $4.2 billion.

The browser fell on hard times, however, and quickly lost what users it had to IE as well as the successor from Mozilla, Firefox. Last month, for instance, Web metrics company Net Applications tracked Netscape’s browser share at just 0.60 per cent, while IE owned 77.4 per cent and Firefox accounted for 16 per cent.

Netscape Navigator was also a focus of the federal antitrust case that began in 1998. When the court eventually ruled on the case, it said Microsoft had quashed its rival using illegal practices, including tying its free IE to Windows and bullying partners into not bundling Netscape with new PCs.

Drapeau’s blog hinted at the frustration in keeping Netscape breathing, if only on life support. “While internal groups within AOL have invested a great deal of time and energy in attempting to revive Netscape Navigator, these efforts have not been successful in gaining market share from Internet Explorer,” he said. “Recently, support for the Netscape browser has been limited to a handful of engineers tasked with creating a skinned version of Firefox with a few extensions.”

Netscape will remain available for download from an AOL site that has not yet been set up, but Drapeau encouraged current users to move to Firefox. “The Netscape Team fully stands behind the fine work being done by the Mozilla Foundation,” he said.

“We recommend that you download Mozilla Firefox and give it a try,” Drapeau said. “We know you’ll enjoy it!”

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