For those who were not acquainted with the wonders of the Web browser, or at least with its mighty financial potential, August 10, 1995, was an eye-opening day.

That’s because Netscape Communications Corporation, developer of Navigator, then the most popular software for surfing the World Wide Web, went public with what became the largest Initial Public Offering (IPO) in Wall Street history.

The California-based company issued five million shares of stock, which were slated to trade at $28. By the close of that first trading day, Netscape’s stock had zoomed up to $72 a share, which left the company with a market value of $1.96 billion.

These were impressive figures for a sixteen-month-old concern, which had produced nothing but a single piece of software. But that software helped transform the Web from an arcane academic tool and computer curiosity into a lucrative fixture of late 1990s American life. The success didn’t go unnoticed on other software houses and it wasn’t long before industry giant Microsoft unleashed its own software – Internet Explorer. Since then Microsoft has used a barrage of advertisements, as well as questionable business tactics, to claim the major share of the browser market. This despite lawsuits, class actions and massive anti-trust laws fines.

None of this helped Netscape’s finances, which flagged considerably since that golden day in the summer of ’95. In January of 1998, the company reported losses totalling $115 million, which triggered downsizing plans as well as rumours of impending takeover.

Indeed in 1999 Netscape was taken over by America on Line (AOL) another of the pioneers of internet connectivity.

At the time of the acquisition, the Netscape team were working on converting their flagship product – Netscape Communicator – into open source software, under a new name: Mozilla. Under ALO ownership Netscape 6, the first Mozilla-based browser was released in 2000.

In 2003 AOL established an independent foundation to support the continued development of the open source web suite but continued to develop versions of the Netscape browser based on the work of the foundation. However in March 2008 AOL announced that it would no longer support Netscape and advised customers to switch instead to Mozilla Firefox. Diehard Netscape fans can download plug-ins and skins to customise Firefox so that it looks like the Navigator of old.

So, there we are. Another success for Microsoft and as usual it isn’t the better product that won (anyone remember BetaMax Video? Far better quality than VHS) but the one with the most marketing clout.

Still, perhaps Open Source Firefox might dent the glee of the smug guys at Microsoft?

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