After laying off its Netscape developers 4 years ago, AOL has decided to hire a new team to resume development on a new version of its browser. Version 9 will be based on Firefox 2.0 and will be "integrated with" the netscape.com service. Is this anything to get excited about?
I have fond memories of Netscape. Remember those early versions, created by Marc Andreessen, Jim Clark, and some other students from the University of Illinois? Remember the Netscape IPO, and the Internet stock craze it started? The Java applets and plug-in support? LiveScript? How about the contest to create the new Netscape logo? All the "about:" easter eggs? Did anybody out there actually buy a copy of the Netscape browser or put a "Best viewed with Netscape" button on your web site?
Those days are long, long gone, thanks in large part to Microsoft's decision to create and bundle a free browser with Windows. Netscape tried to compete by making theirs free too, and opening up the source code, but they didn't have Microsoft's other revenue streams to pay for development. In a few years IE was able to go from zero to market dominance. AOL (at the time, the dominant online service) bought the company for US$4.2 billion in stock but in a bizarre move did not use the browser for their service. A $750 million check from Microsoft probably didn't hurt. In 2003 most of the programmers were laid off and the torch was passed to the Mozilla Foundation, which (eventually) came out with the popular Firefox browser.
Now it's 2007, and AOL decided to hire a new team of developers to resume development on Netscape. Version 9, expected in the next month or two, will be based on the Mozilla Firefox 2.0 code base. So why not just use Firefox? Netscape developer Chris Finke writes:
Netscape 9 will have tight integration with the Netscape.com service, as evidenced by the icons for the two available Netscape.com extensions (Friends' Activity Sidebar and the Sitemail Notifier). Several Netscape.com-based extensions will be built into the browser; only these two have been previously announced.
Netscape.com used to be the most popular web site on the Internet, for one simple reason - it was the home page for all Netscape browser users. AOL thought they could capitalize on this by turning netscape.com into a 'portal' site like Yahoo. More recently they've tried to emulate the Digg social rating model. But since there aren't very many Netscape browser users now (some estimates say less than 1% of the market), netscape.com isn't eactly burning up the web traffic reports.
Doomed to always be playing catch-up with Firefox, and given a perception that it will suffer from AOL "bloat-ware", I just don't see Netscape 9 taking off.