Some today have said that we are in the midst of a great meme war. This is a war where no one will (hopefully) be killed, no decorations will be awarded and no government benefits earned. This is not the first so-called war relating to modern technology. AC vs. DC, Betamax vs. VHS, Blu-ray vs. HD DVD all were hotly contested and the web browser that use you was no different.

The first web browser made available to the public was Mosaic. Since it was developed by the National Center for Supercomputing Alliance (NCSA) who did not develop it for profit in 1993 it was made available to everyone and that included the code behind it for a small licensing fee. This allowed other companies to take that code to develop their own versions. The NCSA was also not the only group developing a web browser and by the end of 1993 several others existed but did not come close to what Mosaic could do.

One of those browsers developed was by Microsoft and it was called Cello. It was developed for use with Windows 3.1 and was developed with lawyers in mind. Personal computers were becoming popular within the legal profession and Windows was the most popular with lawyers. Windows machines were not powerful enough to run UNIX-based code and since every other browser was developed for UNIX machines it left Windows users in the lurch. Mosaic was a much superior product and Microsoft knew a good thing when they saw it and when the software was made available to license they jumped on it. Cello was discontinued and may have been the first casualty of the Great Browser War.

With the upcoming release of Windows 95 Microsoft wanted something different. They did not want to include Mosaic as a web browser so they set to work developing their own, using their license. The end product was called Internet Explorer which was not developed in time for the initial release but was included with later releases.

Other companies were not sitting on their hands. Marc Andreesen, one of the developers of Mosaic, set to work developing his own browser. He originally called his company Mosaic Netscape but was forced to change the name and chose Netscape instead. His browser would be called Navigator. It was the next step of Mosaic and greatly improved on it and it was made available on the Internet for free for noncommercial use.

While other browsers were available Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator set themselves apart. Browsers like OmniWeb, WebRouser, UdiWWW and even Mosaic fell by the wayside as Netscape proved to be extremely popular with web users. Netscape set itself apart by being able to load webpages in increments rather than waiting to load the entire page before it displayed it. In the days of dial-up Internet this was a major time saver for users. Netscape was also the leader in other innovations like cookies, frames and JavaScript.

Not everyone was happy and many viewed Netscape as trying to bend the Internet to meet its needs. With about 80% market share and a lot of public good will they were well positioned to do so. Navigator was available for use with Windows, Mac and UNIX so everyone could use it. Microsoft did not want to be left behind and decided to do something about this. Engineers at Microsoft were able to catch Internet Explorer up to Navigator by version 3.0 in 1996 and by 1999 had overtaken Navigator in market share.

By that point Microsoft was a giant. They were able to use that leverage to force ISPs and vendors to include Internet Explorer with their products. Microsoft had made Internet Explorer brandable so other companies could customize it, which made it very popular. Netscape’s product, now known as Communicator, was falling behind. In 1998 Netscape released their code as part of an open-source project as they were attempting to build a new browser. At this point the world’s largest ISP, America Online, stepped in and bought Netscape. A new version of Communicator was released using code from a project called Mozilla but it did little to win back users who were now flocking to Internet Explorer. Netscape’s days were numbered as its death spiral began and it was a long and slow death but in 2007 Netscape’s projects were cancelled. By then Netscape’s layout had been incorporated into a new project called Firefox.

Microsoft had several distinct advantages. They did more than just web browsers and this allowed them package their product with other products which were becoming more popular with users. By the time Internet Explorer overtook Netscape Microsoft owned a 90% market share of desktop computers. Since many people were purchasing and using one of their computers for the first time Internet Explorer was the first browser that they came in contact with and used. Netscape had all of its eggs in the browser basket so if it did not succeed the company was in trouble.

Microsoft intended to strangle Netscape. During their 1998 antitrust trial a VP at Intel testified that a Microsoft executive intended to do just that. Among other issues it helped to lead to a decision that Microsoft had violated antitrust legislation and a settlement was negotiated. By that point the damage was done and Netscape was no longer a viable competitor. Microsoft had the market just about to itself. That was until new competitors emerged like Firefox and Google’s Chrome in the late 2000s and resumed the Great Browser Wars.

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