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What Were the ‘Browser Wars’?

What Were the ‘Browser Wars’?

The first shot of the internet browser wars was fired when Netscape launched its initial public offering on August 9, 1995. The company set its offering price at $28 per share. That was seen as a bold move for a company looking to sell five million shares on the strength of a single piece of software, called Netscape Navigator.

By the end of the day, Netscape shares topped $70 a share, reaching a market value of nearly $2 billion. The Netscape IPO was the largest in Wall Street history at that time.

At the time, Netscape’s Navigator was the most popular browser for zooming around the emerging internet. People checking out the World Wide Web for the first time usually did so using Netscape Navigator.

However, that massive IPO caught the attention of Microsoft (MSFT). The company’s dominance of the personal computer operating system market made its entrance into the browser competition a no-brainer.

  • Netscape Navigator was the first commercially-available web browser with a graphical user interface. It made the World Wide Web easier to use.
  • Navigator was briefly the dominant internet browser. Netscape’s IPO in 1995 was a seminal event of the internet boom years.
  • Microsoft launched its first version of Internet Explorer the same year.
  • Microsoft had a huge advantage: It could package Explorer with its ubiquitous operating system and thus feature it prominently in the vast majority of new personal computers sold.

Understanding the Browser Wars

Microsoft Windows had been the dominant operating system since 1985 when manufacturers of the earliest personal computers started looking for customers beyond the hobbyist market. A decade later, it was easy for the company to bundle the first version of its own web browser, Internet Explorer 1.0, with its Windows 95 operating system, installing it on new PCs as a freebie.

Netscape had used a similar strategy earlier by offering evaluation copies as a free download from its website. This time, however, Netscape was dead set against giving away its browser for free.

What Was Netscape?

Initially called Mosaic, Netscape was created, in classic geek fashion, in a computer lab at the University of Illinois. It was not the first search engine, but it was the first to have a graphical user interface (GUI).

Users had been required to enter a text command to call up a webpage. Now, they could use a mouse to click on an icon or select a menu item. The graphics were crude but colorful and informative.

Marc Andreesen, who led the team that created it, and Jim Clark, an entrepreneur, took it public in 1995.

How Microsoft Won the Browser Wars

In the 1990s, advertising revenue was not a reliable moneymaker on the World Wide Web.

Netscape was a software company. Its main revenue came from users paying for Navigator.

Microsoft, on the other hand, was a very rich and well-established software company. It made money by licensing its operating system to computer manufacturers and by selling products that worked with that operating system, such as Word and Excel.

In retrospect, it wasn’t an equal match.

Navigator vs. Explorer

Netscape spruced up its browser with more features. Microsoft promptly added similar features to its Internet Explorer.

Netscape added additional exclusive features to Navigator. Internet Explorer responded with competing features.

This features arms race was nicknamed featuritis. It made both browsers slower and buggier. It also split the internet into two worlds—one that displayed well in Navigator and one that displayed well in Internet Explorer.

Bowing to the inevitable, Netscape dropped its fee in January 1998.

The Antitrust Case

The browser war of Microsoft vs. Netscape was nearing its end with predictable results when the government entered the fray. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice and the attorneys general of 20 states filed suit against Microsoft, alleging violation of antitrust laws.

The suit accused Microsoft of violating antitrust laws by bundling its software with its operating system, thus giving it an unfair edge over the competition. Netscape was at the center of the case.

Microsoft lost the case, but they won their key point on appeal: The company was not forced to split itself into two, separating its operating system business and its software business.

The End of the Battle

In the end, Microsoft won the browser war against Netscape for two simple reasons: It had deep enough pockets to offer its browser free forever, and it could place that browser in a prominent position on the home screens of more than 90% of the personal computers sold.

Netscape was purchased in 1998 by America Online (AOL), then an internet giant in its own right. Navigator was allowed to slowly die.

Although Netscape Navigator is no more, its spiritual progeny, Firefox, carries on the browser war with a small but loyal user base. It’s free, too.

Lynx, introduced in 1992, is the oldest web browser still in existence. This text-only browser information technology professionals who prize its efficiency in locating, reading, and downloading text-based articles,

Enter Google

If Microsoft was able to rest on its laurels, it wasn’t for long.

In 1998, Google arrived on the scene, with an entirely new idea.

“Traditional” search engines such as Internet Explorer responded to search queries with a list of web pages in which the string of words in the query appeared, in order of the frequency of the mentions. Google prioritized matches to web pages that had frequently been linked to from other web pages. In other words, it ranked the importance of a page according to the frequency in which web users had found it of value.

The Post-Browser Wars Period

As of January 2022, Google had a 91.9% share of the worldwide search engine market. Microsoft’s browser, now called Bing, had a share of 2.88%, followed by Yahoo! with a 1.51%. The remainder is held by Yandex, Baidu, and DuckDuckGo.

(Yandex is owned by a Russian company and is the dominant search engine there. Baidu is a Chinese browser. DuckDuckGo is a U.S.-based browser for users who prize anonymity and protection from data collection.)

The numbers are slightly less startling for the U.S. There, Google holds an 87.8% share followed by Bing at 6.17% and Yahoo! at 3.13%.

Mobile Numbers

The usage numbers are somewhat different when browsers for mobile devices, which did not exist in the Navigator era, are counted.

As of January 2022, the global browser market was led by Google’s Chrome, at 63.06%, followed by Apple’s Safari, at 19.84%. Other players include Firefox, Microsoft’s Edge, Samsung Internet, and Opera.

Microsoft’s Edge holds a share of 4.12%.

What Was the First Web Browser Called?

The first internet browser was called WorldWideWeb, according to Tim Berners-Lee, who ought to know.

Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web in 1990 and called its browser WorldWideWeb. Later, the WorldWideWeb was renamed Nexus in order to better distinguish between the information and the program.

What Were Some of the Early Web Browsers?

WorldWideWeb, later named Nexus, was the sole browser for the web until 1992 when Lynx was introduced.

Lynx, introduced in 1992, was and is a text-based browser. Used primarily for locating, reading, and downloading text-based articles, it continues to be used today for those purposes.

Mosaic, an early version of Netscape Navigator, was introduced in 1993. It was the first web browser with a graphical user interface, making the web more accessible to the masses.

Netscape Navigator, a renamed and improved version of Mosaic, was introduced in 1994.

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 1.0 was introduced in 1995.

When Was Internet Explorer Created?

Version 1.0 of Internet Explorer was released in August 1995. Microsoft released its 11th and last version in 2008.

Microsoft now produces Microsoft Edge, an internet browser, and Microsoft Bing, an internet search engine.

(A browser retrieves and displays web pages. A search engine allows people to input queries in order to find pages. Google’s web browser is Google Chrome. Its search engine is Google Search.)

Does Netscape Navigator Still Exist?

AOL stopped supporting Netscape Navigator on Feb. 1, 2008, effectively killing it slowly.

AOL had acquired Netscape Navigator in November 1998 for $4.2 billion.

The Bottom Line

The browser wars of the 1990s established a few norms for the then-new World Wide Web business.

First, a browser must be free to use or it can’t compete.

Secondly, a browser must support graphics so that it is easy to use and can properly display the full range of content available to the public.

Thirdly, deep pockets help (but not forever).

And, lastly, a browser that meets all of the above conditions but also produces superior results for the user will win. At least until someone has a better idea.

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