"Netscape quits"?

In June 2001 there was a rumour that Netscape would quit making browsers. I didn't believe it, and wrote this article.

I wrote this article on 11 June 2001, made a few minor updates in the week after, and never touched it since.

Meanwhile Netscape has quit, but it took two more years.

In the web design community, the talk of the week has been the rumour that Netscape will quit making browsers. In my opinion, people have been too quick to reach conclusions. There is (as yet) no evidence that Netscape will actually stop producing browsers.

First for the facts. The rumour seems to have started after an article appeared on Yahoo News (with a copy on Yahoo Finance), in which Netscape president Jim Bankoff is quoted saying:

"The browser is a crown jewel. However, six months from now, you won't consider Netscape to be a browser company."

This has been universally translated as: "Netscape quits!".

The quote

Please note that Bankoff did not say: "Netscape will not produce any more browsers." In fact, Netscape 6.01 is still available for downloading, which means that, whatever will happen later on, Netscape hasn't yet stopped releasing browsers under its own name. In addition, I searched the 2001 Netscape Press Releases page and found not a single mention of any plans to discontinue the Netscape browser. In fact, the latest addition was of 4 May, a full month before the Yahoo article was published.

Then what did Bankoff say? In my opinion, he simply said what he said. I paraphrase:

In six months Netscape will not be primarily known for its WWW browsing software. Instead, it will be primarily known for its portal activities.

This does not mean that the browser will be discontinued, it simply means that Netscape will switch the focus of its branding activities from the browser to the portal.

Of course this does not prove that the company will continue to produce browsers for all eternity. However, on the basis of this article alone, the contention that Netscape will stop developing browsers can only receive the verdict "Not Proven".

The technology

Then why this strange rumour?

I wanted to get to the bottom of this and decided to start my inquiry at the source. In the article Reuters is quoted as the source of the quotation. So I went to the Reuters site and tried to search on the keyword "Netscape". Unfortunately, it turned out that the Reuters site does not have a search functionality, except for stock quotes. So far so bad.

(12 June): Meanwhile I found the Reuters article. Unfortunately it doesn't offer more information, the two Yahoo articles have accurately paraphrased it.

So I actually perused the entire Yahoo article and read:

"Netscape is [sic!] by no means a rejection of its software legacy, as components of its browser technology will continue to power new features of Netscape's media services aimed at office workers, small businesses and sophisticated Web users."

In my opinion, 'sophisticated Web users' can be translated as 'Netscape users', following the traditional myth of the self-reliant, independent Netscape user versus the big-bucks-enslaved, simple-minded Explorer user.

Although the source of this interesting paragraph is not mentioned (one assumes it to be the enigmatic Reuters interview), we may draw the conclusion that the 'components of browser technology' are in fact commonly and collectively known as 'Netscape 6'.

Netscape quits? Not likely.

The company

All very interesting, but we still haven't found a clue as to where the "Netscape quits" rumour came from.

Browsing on across the Internet (using, incidentally, components of browser technology recently made available to sophisticated web users) I came across a second Yahoo article based on the same Reuters interview but written by a different journalist. This article favours the AOL angle, which is mentioned but not detailed in the other article.

From this article it becomes clear that Netscape's purpose is to redirect the current brand values attached to the 'Netscape' name (the ubiquitous sophistication of certain web surfers using certain browsing components, as opposed to the ignorance of users of certain other browsing components, who slavishly follow the pre-cooked big-brother-like functionalities of their software):

"'We call them the a la carte crowd,' said Bankoff, who added that Netscape users seem to prefer finding content on their own, without the sort of hand-holding offered by the AOL experience."

Interesting as this may be from a psychological and branding point of view, a Forrester research analyst said that

"it appears that Netscape's new strategy focuses on advertising sales, offering advertisers options for cross-selling and marketing integration within AOL Time Warner's wide range of sub-sites."

So much for the sophistication of web users. The components of browser technology meant for their use are clearly intended to give them access to the wonderful, dollar-generating functionalities AOL has thought up. Apparently, AOL wants to emulate Microsoft's succesful web community and branding actions with some communing and branding of its own.

Incidentally, this is once again a clue that the Netscape browser is still necessary in the new scheme of things. One cannot expect Microsoft to graciously add AOL functionality to Explorer, while for the scheme to succeed suitable components of browser technology have to be made available to web users (sophisticated or otherwise).

Netscape quits? Not likely.

The browser

Still no trace of the source of the rumour. Maybe it appeared because of the current state of the browser itself?

As is well known, people are fed up with Netscape. Its Version 4 browser is more and more revealed to be a bug-ridden, crash-prone piece of junk that frustrates web developers' attempts to create cutting-edge web sites. On the other hand, Netscape 6, after more than two years of promises, is still not stable and still cannot be used without an advanced degree in Browserology.

So the promises have not been kept. Small wonder that the Netscape bosses are starting to get nervous. Besides, qualified programmers are pretty expensive.

On the other hand, a sizable open source community has contributed its efforts to the making of Netscape 6. It is very unlikely that this open source community will halt its activities if Netscape should decide not to make browsers any more. Of course, in that case they could not use the name 'Netscape' any more, but otherwise little would change. Why should they stop when the finish is so near?

Netscape quits? Well, maybe the name will be changed, but the product will continue.

The rumour

Evaluating all this negative evidence, where does the "Netscape quits" rumour come from? In my opinion, the rumour has emerged from the collective hopes and fears of web developers.

On the one hand, many web developers are sick and tired of Netscape 4, while Netscape 6 can't find favour in their eyes either. Their devout wish is making Explorer-only sites that give them the chance to add exciting new functionalities without the need for Netscape workarounds.

On the other hand, many web developers are frightened of a browser universum in which one vendor dominates 99% of the browser market. They fear the emergence of new MS standards that will significantly diverge from the W3C recommendations.

These two contradictory impulses seem to have generated a climate in which everyone expects Netscape to quit. When the Bankoff interviewed was paraphrased by Yahoo, many people took it as the final nail in Netscape's coffin, quite unjustifiedly, as we've seen.

On the other hand, none of the points above promise an end to the decrease of Netscape's share of the browser market. So it might turn out that Netscape, for all practical purposes, could have quit. Or it might not.

In short: nothing's decided yet.


(12 June 2001): By far the most common reaction to this article is "Yeah, but Mozilla 0.9.1 is really great!". This seems to be true and it gives new reason to hope that the Netscape browser will make a return on the market.

(19 June 2001): It's official now: Netscape is not quitting the browser business.