The Role of Netscape

How did a small start-up revolutionize computing?

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The Men Behind the Company

Netscape Communications Corporation made its fortune by marketing the first graphical web browser to the public in early 1994. What many people do not know is that the Netscape Navigator was an extended and more robust version of Mosaic, a graphical web browser written in 1992 by a group of students at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Illinois. These students, led by Marc Andreessen, were the first programmers to implement a graphical web browser, and while an application such as Navigator probably would have been developed elsewhere, these young men were in the right place at the right time (with the right idea), and while none of them had been born when Bob Taylor first conceived the idea of the ARPANET, they are directly responsible for the inception of the internet boom.

In the fall of 1992, Andreessen was attending the University of Illinios at Urbana-Champaign and working part time at the school's NCSA, where he wrote UNIX code at $6.85 per hour. Andreessen presented his idea of a GUI web browser to a few of his co-workers, and the group began the design and implementation of Mosaic.

The name Mosaic was the result of a brainstorming session at NCSA. According to Bina, the name was to represent the idea that the Web is a single picture made up of many parts (HTTP, FTP, Gopher, etc., as well as a variety of platforms). Mosaic floated along at NCSA, its popularity growing at an exponential rate. The NCSA server crashed the first day the program was made available as freeware, and within a few months, over one million copies of Mosaic had been downloaded. At the same time, internet activity was exploding. One estimate put the annual growth of web traffic at 342,000 percent. The number of commercial websites grew from fifty at the beginning of 1993 to over ten thousand by year's end. Mosaic fueled the internet sensation, and it was only a short time before the real entrepreneurs stepped in to commercialize the web.

Enter Jim Clark. Clark left Silicon Graphics in January of 1994 with the vague intention of starting a new software company, perhaps involving interactive television. Near the end of his time at SGI, colleague Bill Foss showed Clark a new program he found. That program was Mosaic. Clark was smitten, and he took note of a Mosaic page showing Andreessen and where he was. Clark contacted Andreessen and the two met, with excellent results. "He was one of the sharpest people I had ever run across," Clark told the San Jose Mercury News." His vision, knowledge about markets and ability to execute were right on target." The two discussed various buisness opportunities and developed no sure-fire money-making idea, but in the end Clark's entrepreneurial spirit could not be checked. "You think of something to do," Clark instructed Andreessen, "and I'll fund it."

For Andreessen, there was no reason not to join forces with Jim Clark. Friction had been building between the NCSA management and the Mosaic programmers for several months, and Andreessen was looking for a way to get out. Management issued glowing press reports about Mosaic, but declined to mention Andreessen or the other programmers in any great detail, thus preventing them from receiving the accolades which they were due. In essence, the young team of Mosaic programmers saw themselves as under-paid, under-appreciated, and overworked.

Andreessen soon left the NCSA to found Mosaic Communications Corporation. Shortly thereafter he sent e-mail to his former colleagues: "Something's going down. Be ready to move."

The company was born.

The Making of Mozilla

The challenges facing the infant business were similar to those facing any high-tech start up. They needed a viable business plan, a revenue-generating product, and the talent necessary to pull it off. Jim Clark invested four million dollars of his own money into Mosaic, and the core staff of programmers was set to work: the original hackers from the NCSA were presented with a new challenge: create a new product, a "Mosaic Killer," which would be everything that the original Mosaic browser was, plus everything that they didn't have time to add. These founding members were each given one percent of the company -- a stake that would make each of them multi-millionaires after the IPO. With Andreessen focusing his energies on managerial issues as opposed to coding, Jamie Zawiniski was hired to be the lead UNIX programmer. Also recruited to the company was Lou Montulli, the creator of the text-based Lynx browser for UNIX systems.

Between April and October of 1994, the company's size was well under one hundred employees, all of whom were consistently working in excess of one hundred hours per week on "Mozilla." For some excellent insights into the living and working conditions of the employees during this intense time, Jamie Zawiniski's diary is an interesting read.

Meanwhile, the management at the NCSA became aware of Mosaic Communications' attempt to create a new web browser and filed suit against the company. In an act of settlement, Clark changed the company's name to Netscape and offered the NCSA three million dollars or fifty-thousand shares of Netscape stock. Unfortunately for the NCSA, they chose the cash, and lost a fortune.

Netscape released the first version of Navigator on October 12, 1994. Faster and more robust than Mosaic, it rapidly became the market leader on machines of all platforms. Almost immediately, Navigator claimed more than seventy percent of the browser market, and by the summer of '95, there had been two million downloads of the software.

Meanwhile, Netscape needed a new leader. Jim Clark was no CEO, and he knew it. After an extensive recruiting exercise, Clark offered Jim Barksdale twelve percent of the company to leave his secure job as a top man in Federal Express to join Netscape. Barksdale accepted and became acting CEO in January of 1995, while Clark stepped back to the chairman position.

The Aftermath

Netscape thrived under Barksdale. On August 5, 1995, eight months after becoming CEO, the company went public. The hottest item on Wall Street, Netscape stock peaked at just under $75 per share, making all of the employees instant millionaires. Jim Clark's stake was $544 million. Barksdale's was $224 million. Andreessen walked away with $58 million.

The initial challenge had been creating the web browser, and doing it before anyone else. The new challenge facing Netscape was to fend off Microsoft, because the Redmond, WA giant had turned its sights to the internet and wanted a browser of its own. Consequently, the next few years would be disappointing for Netscape, which would watch its browser share slowy evaporate as Internet Explorer became more widespread. For a time during the summer of 1998, Netscape's stock was below $20 per share.

Two things saved Netscape from potential anonymity. The first was the open-source movement, which Netscape embraced. was established to provide the source code for Navigator and Communicator to the world for free, and while the idea was not a stellar success, it -- coupled with the release of Communicator 4.0 -- gave Netscape some well-needed good publicity and helped revitalize the stock price.

Today, Netscape Communications Corporporation is no longer an independent enterprise. Acquired by AOL in March for $10 billion, Netscape is no longer the pioneer of the World Wide Web. The future for the coporation remains unclear, and competition from Microsoft is as strong as ever. Communicator version 5.0 has a rumored December release date. Jim Barksdale now sits on AOL's board, but he no longer oversees the day-to-day operations of Netscape. Andreessen has recently stepped down from his post of Chief Technology Officer at AOL and has returned to the Valley to focus on start-up opportunities. This all said, the AOL name is a strong one, and it is highly unlikely that Netscape's teal logo bearing the trademark N will disappear any time soon.

Last Updated: 16 September 1999, 11:54