The end of an era as AOL officially retires Netscape

As we bid adieu to 2007 and prepare to enter the new year, AOL is also saying goodbye to memories: the company has finally killed off the Netscape Web browser - or what was left of it, anyway.

March 31, 2008 will mark 10 years since the Netscape development team opened up the source code to the browser that ushered in the Internet era. With its acquisition of Netscape in 1999, AOL continued that effort and helped launch the Mozilla Foundation into an organization that has taken on Microsoft and shaped the Web as we know it today.

But Netscape's time has long since passed due to the arrival of Firefox and AOL's struggles to stay relevant in an increasingly broadband-connected decade. Netscape 6, the first browser based upon the Mozilla source code, debuted in 2000 and was succeeded two years later by Netscape 7, also a rebranded version of Mozilla.

Meanwhile, Internet Explorer quickly took over Windows desktops and Netscape's market share dwindled to single digits.

The demise of Netscape wasn't a big surprise to most. When the Internet bubble burst, there was little money to fund development of a product that could compete with something Microsoft gave away for free. Even the Mozilla foundation barely limped along with help from AOL until Google laid its golden egg: advertising in search results.

Google -- Microsoft's online nemesis -- inked a deal to give the Mozilla Foundation a cut of advertising revenues when users searched from its browsers. The money aided the development of Firefox, which has become so successful that the organization has even stopped producing its namesake Mozilla suite, although a group of developers continue to work on it under the name "Seamonkey."

In 2005, thanks to the growing success of Firefox backed by Google, AOL revived the Netscape browser hoping it could offer a more consumer-friendly alternative. Netscape Browser 8, as it was called, bulked up Firefox's security with a "Trust Rating" system for Web sites, and took a unique approach to compatibility by enabling users to render Web pages using Internet Explorer's engine directly within Netscape.

Despite limited acceptance of the reborn Netscape version 8, AOL pressed forward with development, promising and delivering version 9 in October 2007 while bringing back the Netscape Navigator moniker. While version 8 of Netscape was largely outsourced to Mercurial Communications, AOL built its own development team for Navigator 9.0.

But the effort didn't last long, due to organizational changes within the company and an overall lack of success.

"While internal groups within AOL have invested a great deal of time and energy in attempting to revive Netscape Navigator, these efforts have not been successful in gaining market share from Microsoft's Internet Explorer," AOL's Tom Drapeau wrote on the Netscape blog Friday. "Recently, support for the Netscape browser has been limited to a handful of engineers tasked with creating a skinned version of Firefox with a few extensions."

Drapeau noted that AOL is not able to invest in Netscape as it once did, adding that, "we feel it's the right time to end development of Netscape branded browsers, hand the reins fully to Mozilla and encourage Netscape users to adopt Firefox."

Security patches for Netscape Navigator 9 will be released through February 1, 2008 at which point all product support will cease for the current release and all previous Netscape versions. This includes Netscape v1-v4.x, Netscape v6, Netscape v7 Suite, Netscape Browser v8, and Netscape Navigator/Messenger 9.

Those nostalgic for the days before the Web was filled with phishing scams and other malware can install a Netscape theme atop Firefox. Netscape.com will continue to exist, although the site has retained only a fraction of its original users after a year-long experiment in which it became a community driven news site like Digg.com before reverting back to a general portal.

It may appear an unceremonious death for Netscape's eulogy to be written in a developer blog post on an idle Friday afternoon at the cusp of a new year. But as we look forward to Mozilla's 10th anniversary, we can also look back and appreciate the immense impact that Netscape has had by bringing the World Wide Web to computer screens in every corner of the planet and connecting us like never before.

Goodbye, Netscape; thanks for the memories. October 1994 - October 2007.

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