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In 1994, a press release read: “Netscape Communications Corporation today announced that it is offering its newly introduced Netscape(TM) network navigator free to users via the Internet.” That was when Netscape released its first commercial browser for free. Netscape was probably one of the most important companies of its time and if you had access to a computer and the web in the early 90s, chances are you were using a Netscape browser.
However, the company failed to live up to expectations and despite a stellar IPO, failed to compete with the likes of Microsoft. Netscape ended up disbanded, but it did leave a legacy behind.
The Netscape era
When the world wide web was opened to the public in 1991, it changed the world. Netscape became the first company to capitalise on it with founders Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen seen as revolutionaries. Clark and Andreessen realised the potential of the web and the need for a tool to access and navigate the web. Within months of its release in 1994, Netscape had nearly 75% of the browser market.
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A year later, the company went public. The Wall Street Journal described Netscape’s IPO as one of the most stunning debuts in Wall Street history. Stock valuations soared on the first day of trading.
However, Netscape had a very powerful competitor – Microsoft. The tech giant launched Internet Explorer in August 1995 and thus began the browser war. In 1998, AOL acquired Netscape and disbanded it in 2003. Four years later, AOL pulled the plug on support for the Netscape web browser.
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The legacy of Netscape
While at the cusp of being acquired by AOL, co-founder Andreessen publicly released the source code for Netscape Navigator 4.0. “By giving away the source code for future versions, we can ignite the creative energies of the entire net community and fuel unprecedented levels of innovation in the browser market,” Jim Barksdale, then CEO of Netscape had said.
This led to the creation of Mozilla and its Firefox browser. In fact, in 1998, when Mozilla was formed, it was funded by Netscape. Over the years, Firebox has emerged as one of the best alternatives to Google Chrome.
Further, the concept of cookies too came from Netscape. Although Lou Montulli, 23 at that time, invented the cookies we love to hate, Montulli and Netscape’s intentions were not to track users, but to solve the memory problem of websites. He wanted the websites to remember the users who had visited the page earlier, and hence, cookies were born. Montulli even holds a patent for his innovation.
Netscape’s SSL protocol
The Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol developed by Netscape is probably one of the most important technological innovations of our time. Taher Elgamal, who is regarded as the father of SSL, worked as a chief scientist at Netscape Communications from 1995 to 1998.
If you are ordering a book from Amazon or a pizza from Zomato and paying online for it, you have to thank Elgamal and the SSL protocol he developed. The underlying technology of SSL powers today’s security standard, Transport Layer Security (TLS).
Netscape pioneered SSL, the technology which allows you to carry out a transaction over the web in a secure way. SSL establishes an encrypted link between your computer and the website you are browsing. “It’s a bullet-proof rock solid way of authenticating two endpoints and having a secure connection. We invented that,” Clark said.
The technology facilitates sharing of personal information, such as credit/debit card numbers, over the internet. It helps protect the flow of information from external forces.
Founders who shaped today’s technology
After Netscape, founders Clark and Andreessen went their separate ways. Andreessen founded Opsware with Ben Horowitz, Tim Howes, and In Sik Rhee. It was one of the first companies to provide software as a service. Later, Andreessen, along with his business partner Horowitz, founded Andreessen Horowitz (a16z). His portfolio includes names such as Facebook, GitHub, Pinterest, Twitter, and Foursquare among others.
Often regarded as a super investor, Andreessen also had a stake in Skype, prior to it being acquired by Microsoft. He also served as a board of director at eBay for nearly six years.
Similarly, after Netscape, Clark founded myCFO, a wealth management firm. He was also a founding director of biotech firm DNA Sciences, which later got acquired by Genaissance Pharmaceuticals.
In 2020, the internet pioneer founded Beyond Identity, a firm that wants to eliminate the use of passwords. Clark acknowledged that his firm’s novel approach to passwordless authentication was first laid nearly three decades ago – at Netscape.