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Whatever happened to Netscape?

Lisa Napoli Feb 5, 2008

Whatever happened to Netscape?

Lisa Napoli Feb 5, 2008


Kai Ryssdal: Let’s redirect the high tech conversation away from Microsoft and Yahoo for a second.

Time Warner releases quarterly earnings tomorrow, which’ll probably mean more talk about the future of America Online.

Remember how Time Warner used to call itself AOL/Time Warner? AOL’s fallen on harder times since then, but it’s always going to have a place in internet history, as much for itself as for its role with another company from the pre-dot com boom days: it owns Netscape.

At the end of the month, AOL’s going to pull the plug on the once ubiquitous browser, but it’s got a backstory worth remembering. Marketplace’s Lisa Napoli reports.

Lisa Napoli: Once upon a time — about thirteen years ago — the only way most of us could get online was by subscribing to something called a “closed proprietary online service.”

There wasn’t a whole lot you could do on these services. You couldn’t even send email to someone who wasn’t on the same service as you.

Mark Benerofe was an executive at two early online companies. He remembers the first time he saw this new thing called a Web browser. It’s name was Netscape.

Mark Benerofe: You could tell it really was the beginning of the dam breaking. Everyone was going to be on the same roadway system, the same interstate system.

Netscape was a whole new way of going online: getting on to the Internet. Back then, not many people understood or cared what that meant.

And yet, on August 9, 1995, when Netscape went public, it created a frenzy. The offering price doubled even before the opening bell, from $14 to $28. Then it hit an unthinkable $75 a share.

Ted Leonsis paid close attention. He was a co-founder of America Online — the competition.

Ted Leonsis: We watched it throughout the day go up and up and up and up. I remember so clearly the euphoria and rush. We had never seen a phenomenon like that.

Netscape’s stunning debut made Wall Street hungry for more. The words “initial public offering” became part of the zeitgeist. People who’d never bought stock before started sinking all their money into any Internet-related company they could. Anyone with an idea for the next big thing could attract millions of dollars in venture capital.

But perhaps the biggest thing Netscape did: it made everyone aware of this newfangled thing called the World Wide Web:

Marc Weber: It was the first modern dot com.

That’s Marc Weber of the Web History Project. He says pre-Netscape, the Internet was a strange subterranean entity. Post-Netscape, it was a populist playground — a whole new economy:

Weber: I think it’ll be remembered as the company that made the Web a commercial success, and by extension, really built the web that we know.

Netscape will also be remembered as a company that was trounced by software giant Microsoft. Its rival Internet Explorer overtook the desktop and led to a long anti-trust battle between the two companies.

America Online tried to rescue the pioneering browser company. It plunked down more than $4 billion for it in 1998. Ted Leonsis of AOL said it was too late:

Leonsis: We were unsuccessful in being able to battle Microsoft as are most companies. There were lots of lawsuits, lots of issues of monopoly bundling. that’s kind of ancient history now.

As is Netscape, as of today. From a dominant market share and a critical role in the development of a modern medium to nothing more than a footnote.

In Los Angeles, I’m Lisa Napoli for Marketplace.

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