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Microsoft Tried To Buy Netscape: Suppose They Had? 246

Posted by Soulskill
from the alternate-e-history dept.
Glyn Moody writes "In an interview, Brendan Eich, the creator of JavaScript and currently CIO at Mozilla, reveals that Microsoft tried to buy Netscape at the end of 1994. They were turned down because the offer was too low, but imagine if Netscape had accepted: no browser wars, no open Web standards, no Mozilla, no Firefox. How might the Web — and the world — have looked today if that had happened?"
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Microsoft Tried To Buy Netscape: Suppose They Had?

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  • Fallacy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Literaphile (927079) on Friday October 28, 2011 @04:53PM (#37873682)

    no browser wars, no open Web standards, no Mozilla, no Firefox.

    That's a pretty slippery slope. Obviously there probably would have been no Mozilla or Firefox, but who's to say that another browser wouldn't have emerged to start a war, or push open web standards? This is why "what if" scenarios are inherently stupid and pointless: they force you to suppose that nothing else will have changed, but that's not true. Likely another browser would have emerged to fill the void and encourage competition.

    • Re:Fallacy (Score:5, Interesting)

      by jellomizer (103300) on Friday October 28, 2011 @05:16PM (#37874010)

      Well Microsoft really kicked Netscape butt. But at the time Netscape wasn't about Open Web Standards, It was two sides trying to win their own priority web standards.
      A new browser would have came up with more force if Microsoft killed the Linux ports of the browsers. Probably Konquer (that both Google Chrome and Apple Safari is based off of) would have became more used then Mozilla and got a big community support to make it on par and better then IE, just because the Linux users needed a web browser.

      • Re:Fallacy (Score:5, Informative)

        by Scoth (879800) on Friday October 28, 2011 @05:45PM (#37874350)

        This is the point so many fans of modern Firefox and other open source browsers forget. Netscape wasn't about open web standards and cross-browser compatibility until relatively recently - probably after the fall of Netscape itself and beginning of Mozilla/Gecko. Way back in the mists of time, Netscape 2.0 was roundly criticized for introducing a bunch of proprietary tags (many of which were later adopted but at the time weren't) and Microsoft Internet Explorer 1.0 was praised for adhering to standards. I can't find it now but recently I stumbled on an ancient page that urged a boycott of Netscape 2.0 and explained in great detail what proprietary tags it had and which were safe to use.

        • by noahm (4459)
          Yeah, I don't have any references either, but I definitely remember a day of protest. The idea was to add some proprietary netscape-only markup to your pages such that netscape users would get a black, content-free page, but users of standards-compliant browsers would see the content as usual. I think that was post 2.0, though, but I could be wrong.
        • by yuhong (1378501)

          The funny thing is that HTML 3.2's tags came from IE1 in the first place, but excluded those tags not implemented in Netscape 2.0, like &ltFONT FACE=. In fact, the standard itself says it reflected the de facto HTML as of "early 1996".

    • Emerged? In 1994, there were half a dozen web browsers, and HTML was simple enough that writing one was a relatively easy task. WorldWideWeb itself was about a weekend's worth of work. HTML 2 made it a bit more complex, but a competent coder could have easily written an HTML 2 rendering engine in a couple of weeks. It wasn't until about 1997 that the choice for browsers on Windows was typically reduced to IE or NS (or Opera if you were weird). Mosaic, OmniWeb and a host of others were very common.
    • by bloodhawk (813939)
      There were already multiple other browsers at the time, there was no need for another to emerge.
    • by Kjella (173770)

      Likely another browser would have emerged to fill the void and encourage competition.

      Or it could be like chat, where I used to talk on the open IRC protocol 10-15 years ago but now use MSN's proprietary protocol that other clients with varying degrees of success try to emulate because nobody I want to talk to uses IRC anymore (or Jabber for that matter). It's certainly not impossible that Microsoft would be able to make their own MS-HTTP protocol that'd only work on IIS and IE dominant, particularly if they'd rapidly added some of the features that made Flash so successful. Instead of Firef

    • Re:Fallacy (Score:4, Funny)

      by vagabond_gr (762469) on Friday October 28, 2011 @07:16PM (#37875148)

      This is why "what if" scenarios are inherently stupid and pointless

      They are indeed... but what if they were not?

    • Re:Fallacy (Score:4, Insightful)

      by scubamage (727538) on Friday October 28, 2011 @07:39PM (#37875342)
      Lynx existed, and that's all I needed.
  • So unless something happens, like a T-800 knocking on Bill's door to force him to buy it (and we'll not know). This type of speculation seems like a waste of time.
  • If they had bought Netscape, then they wouldn't have bought / licensed Mosaic and would have ended up with a different browser war. There were half a dozen browser makers around at the time, Netscape was just the biggest.
  • How might the Web — and the world — have looked today if that had happened?

    There would have been someone else that would have filled Netscape's shoes. Someone would have built the better mousetrap to compete.
  • They were turned down because the offer was too low

    ...and how did THAT work out for Netscape the Company? History suggests (Yahoo, ahem) that Microsoft is happy to overpay to remove competitors from the landscape.

    imagine if Netscape had accepted: no browser wars, no open Web standards, no Mozilla, no Firefox

    The browser wars would have still happened. Remember Opera goes all the way back to 1994 and it was possible to crank out your own web browser in less than a year at that time.

    • Mod parent up.

    • by Zan Lynx (87672)

      Yeah. Everyone was writing web browsers.

      Then there was KHTML and GTKHTML. GTKHTML always kind of sucked, but it did display web pages. And we all know what happened to KHTML. It turned into Webkit, the base code for pretty much every good web browser except IE, Firefox and Opera.

      • by Bucky24 (1943328)

        every good web browser except IE, Firefox and Opera.

        In other words, Safari and Chrome (and chrome-based browsers like Iron)?

        • by Zan Lynx (87672)

          You are missing all of the little Webkit based mobile browsers. The iOS browser is not exactly Safari and the Android browser is not exactly Chrome. I believe the browser that the Nokia N900 runs is a Webkit based not-Chrome, not-Safari browser too.

          Valve's Steam client uses Webkit, built right into Steam.

          The next big version of the Evolution email client is using Webkit for HTML mail rendering.

          Webkit gets used in a lot of places.

          • by Bucky24 (1943328)
            That's a good point. I'd forgotten about the mobile market.
        • Nokia's S60 browser and the Blackberry browser also use WebKit, as do the Android and WebOS browsers. Recent versions of OmniWeb also use it. There are a lot of small browsers for various platforms written using it as well, for example the AROS browser. There used to be quite a few Gecko-based ones, but WebKit is a bit more modular and easier to embed so fewer people are writing new ones and minority browsers have a habit of becoming abandoned after a few years.
      • You are dangerously close to having your geek credentials revoked for saying IE is a good browser.

        • by Zan Lynx (87672)

          IE version 9 is an excellent browser.

          And in their day, IE 4 and 5 beat Netscape like a red headed step child.

          Microsoft needs pressure from competition: then they produce good stuff.

    • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Friday October 28, 2011 @05:25PM (#37874106) Homepage Journal

      How did it work out? Instead of taking Microsoft's lowball offer, Netscape had a $half-billion IPO, the biggest of all time, and the one that still defines "big IPO" a decade and a half (and two or three bubbles) later. Then Netscape was bought by AOL for even more scads of money, which let AOL do to Netscape what Microsoft wanted for less money. So, given the equivalent other results, turning down Microsoft made Netscape's shareholders (including the corporation itself) a lot more money.

      But the results were not equivalent. Instead, Netscape forced the Internet to be cross-platform in ways that outlasted even Netscape Inc. According to its own agenda, not Microsoft's (extremely limited and lame one). And Netscape Inc lasted years longer, producing major innovations like Netscape Commerce Server and Netscape Directory Server (among others). Which again set the direction of the entire Internet for at least the next decade and a half (and counting).

      In every way you can consider Netscape did the right thing. What could you possibly have been thinking was bad for "Netscape the Company" by turning down Microsoft?

      • by Thuktun (221615)

        But the results were not equivalent. Instead, Netscape forced the Internet to be cross-platform in ways that outlasted even Netscape Inc.

        The Internet and the Web were cross-platform before Netscape. What do you think Netscape contributed, out of curiosity?

  • Netscape wasn't the only player in the browser market. In 1994 linux users had to use something, whether konqueror, opera or any other browsers rose, a niche existed to be filled for a better web browser. Microsoft was doing a terrible job, with little competition they had little concern and left themselves wide open to be overtaken. The FOSS community would have backed a different project, and a different browser would have had to have made the same move. Everyone assumes if X company didn't exist no-one e
    • by GauteL (29207) on Friday October 28, 2011 @06:14PM (#37874652)

      "In 1994 linux users had to use something, whether konqueror, opera or any other browsers rose, a niche existed to be filled for a better web browser."

      In 1994 there was hardly any Linux users. 1.0 was released that year and Slackware was the only player. Also the few Linux users out there did not "have" to have a browser. The web was just not that well established and Gopher was still popular.

      In many ways the web was crucial in the history of the FOSS community and there is no guarantee we'd have Konqueror without Netscape. KDE wasn't founded until 1996 and the first release of Konqueror was years later than that.

  • by C_Kode (102755)

    Whoa, then I wouldn't have my Redhat Directory Server!?!?! (previously Netscape Directory Server)

  • Um, I think you mean "the offers was erroneously considered to be too low." Last time I checked, Netscape did not exist.

    • Netscape had one of the biggest IPOs of all time, and was eventually bought by AOL for a large sum. So, no, it was not erroneously considered to be too low. Unless it was more than three billion dollars (the Netscape market cap at closing on the day of their IPO in 1995 was $2.9bn).
    • Um, I think you mean "the offers was erroneously considered to be too low." Last time I checked, Netscape did not exist.

      Was Microsoft willing pay $75/share? That's what Netscape hit a year later at IPO. The final outcome is most irrelevant. A price is "too low" if it is more profitable to hold on to the shares and sell at a later date.

  • Why wouldn't having Microsoft be the only browser player in town (allowing them to charge for it!), cause people to basically start the Firefox project? Probably people would have just started with the Mosaic codebase instead and worked from there. Back in 1994 you didn't have to do that much to have a fully featured web browser. Those were the days before Javascript, before frames, before tables, back when inline images were a big deal. That offer would have been around the Netscape 1.0 timeframe, back
  • Maybe Opera would be a much bigger browser today. Opera got its start in 1994 in an Norwegian telecom company, so it likely would have continued to grow if Mozilla was removed as a competitor. And perhaps would have been far more successful if it didn't have to compete against a free product.

    • by Pooua (265915)

      ??? A free product? Like MS Internet Explorer? How was that going to go away?

      • by geekoid (135745)

        If MS bought netscape, IE wouldn't have been free.

        Netscape moving to a free model..or a "fuck it , we lost just give it away and piss MS off" model, MS wouldn't have had any pressure to give IE away. And don't forget, Opera wasn't free.

  • If Netscape was purchased, then the field would have been wide open for another browser to support Java. I recall Sun and MS weren't the best of buds at the time. So if Netscape was taken off the market, my guess Sun would have helped produce a browser written in Java. I wonder if a real browser from Sun that had the backing from the FOSS community would have maybe changed Sun's fate?
    • Back then swing basically didn't work.

      So any browser written in Java wouldn't work ether.

      • Back then Swing didn't exist (well, Java didn't exist, but Swing didn't exist until Java 1.2 in 1998). Java used AWT, which wrapped native controls in Java classes, rather than doing all of the rendering using Java2D (which didn't exist initially either). Java 1.0 did launch with a browser written in Java, although its name escapes me at the moment, but the main focus was on embedding Java in browsers, not browsers in Java.
    • Sun did put out a browser [wikipedia.org] written in Java. It's even technically still available [sun.com].

    • So if Netscape was taken off the market, my guess Sun would have helped produce a browser written in Java.

      Perhaps Java on the desktop would have turned out differently. I still think the outdated and never updated VM in the old Netscape killed Java on the desktop before it even had a chance to take off. Everybody remembers seeing "Starting Java..." on the status bar, followed by the inevitable crash of the browser. Even when it worked, we had to target JDK 1.1 for years even though far better versions had been released.

  • The web would (Score:5, Informative)

    by Crudely_Indecent (739699) on Friday October 28, 2011 @05:10PM (#37873934) Journal

    <marquee behavior=scroll width=100%><blink>SUCK</blink></marquee>

  • by tverbeek (457094) on Friday October 28, 2011 @05:15PM (#37873998) Homepage

    My first reaction was to think that MSN (as they originally conceived it: a Microsoft-owned alternative to AOL and CompuServ) would have dominated end-users' online experiences in the 90s.

    But Netscape was not the only other graphical browser available in those days. There was still NCSA Mosaic, which (despite its family connection to Netscape) would not have fallen into Microsoft hands and would have remained available for users. Even though in the real world Mosaic quickly stagnated, got licensed to MS after all, and died; in this alternate reality it could have become the nexus for development of the web that Netscape was. Or perhaps Opera might have, coming along shortly after.

    • by Thuktun (221615)

      There was still NCSA Mosaic, which (despite its family connection to Netscape) would not have fallen into Microsoft hands and would have remained available for users.

      Internet Explorer was based off NCSA Mosaic just like Netscape. I doubt Microsoft buying Netscape would have changed anything significantly.

    • by Pooua (265915)

      There was still NCSA Mosaic, which (despite its family connection to Netscape) would not have fallen into Microsoft hands and would have remained available for users.

      Why would that have happened? How would MS' purchase of Netscape have kept Mosaic available? MS was bent on monopolizing the browser market. You really think they would have let that slip?

  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Friday October 28, 2011 @05:19PM (#37874042) Homepage Journal

    Microsoft was buying Netscape just to screw it and shut it down. M$ evidently decided it was more profitable overall to just kill Netscape the way it did, with all monopolist crimes M$ was convicted of in 1999 - by which time Netscape was dead, because it worked.

    But if M$ had bought Netscape in 1994, by the late 1990s the same people in and around Netscape would have been inspired to start a free, competing project like Mozilla - which would have produced something like Firefox as Mozilla did.

    These "single turning points" are no match for the overwhelming flow of the rest of events. Which pressure the global Internet for alternatives to the main choice. That diversity and low barrier to entry are the main advantages to the Internet.

    Even Microsoft isn't big, powerful or evil enough to stop that.

    • by mbkennel (97636)

      "But if M$ had bought Netscape in 1994, by the late 1990s the same people in and around Netscape would have been inspired to start a free, competing project like Mozilla - which would have produced something like Firefox as Mozilla did."

      If MS bought Netscape to shut it down/assimilate it into the Windows empire (actually more likely Office---they'd want to sell it as an app at first) then there would be some crazy dot-com funding in the mide-late 1990's to make a new commercial NuevoNetscape in Silicon Vall

      • by Doc Ruby (173196)

        Mostly plausible. But Netscape was primarily a way for Jim Clark of SGI to raise money on Marc Andreesen. That's why "Netscape" turned down the M$ offer as too low - it surely was less than $500M, before the Netscape IPO's aftereffects eventually made $500M look quaint. Without Clark, Andreesen and Netscape disrupting MS, it's not clear how that kind of dotcom money would have played out. Netscape's IPO was the template, and "blind template" was the defining factor in the whole wave.

        I don't think you can ge

  • If not Netscape, then Notscape. There were plenty of other companies ready to take the space of Netscape, had Netscape vanished. It would have been a three-week delay.

  • Anyone else remember MS putting out IE 5 for HP-UX and Solaris? It was grotesque.
    • by blair1q (305137)

      Netscape was no less grotesque in that environment.

      I still have occasion to use it on an old Solaris box. It is one of the most painful parts of any day.

      • Netscape was no less grotesque in that environment.

        I still have occasion to use it on an old Solaris box. It is one of the most painful parts of any day.

        Disagree. I used Netscape on Solaris starting with the early pre-1.0 releases and thought it was roughly equivalent to the windows releases, sometimes a little better, sometimes a little worse. The problem with using one of those old releases is that they are just plain old. Trying to use netscape 3.x on any OS is going to be a sucktacular experience nowadays,

    • by crgrace (220738)

      I actually used that as my main browser for part of graduate school (on HP-UX). It was actually better than our version of Netscape. I used Netscape on my computer at home and I think the Windows version was far, far, superior to the Unix version.

  • I think the web would look a little different now had Netscape sold to Microsoft, but I don't believe we would be as completely fucked as the summary would like us to believe.

  • by Tumbleweed (3706) * on Friday October 28, 2011 @05:55PM (#37874460)

    1994 had more browsers than 'Netscape' - far more, and the web was completely open at the time. Yes, things would have been very different if MS had bought Netscape then, but the web != Netscape, even back then.

    • by H0p313ss (811249)

      Nonsense, by 1994 it was already a two horse race and with a bunch of wannabes sitting on the sidelines.

      • by Tumbleweed (3706) *

        Nonsense, by 1994 it was already a two horse race and with a bunch of wannabes sitting on the sidelines.

        Hardly. I worked at Spry in 1995, and our version of Mosaic was better than anything else out there aside from Navigator. The version we had in beta would've totally killed it if CompuServe hadn't bought the company and scuttled the software side of the company. But Dave Pool got his cut of the $50 million (which for the day was considered a ridiculous amount of money for an Internet technology company), and that was that. *sigh* Full SGML browser, from what I was told. Oh well.

  • Other than that, nothing would have changed. A competing browser would have been called Sloxo Gigazoom or some other dumb open source project name, but history would have played out the same.
  • To claim there would've been no browser wars is ridiculous. Just because it wouldn't have been Firefox, doesn't mean there wouldn't have been browser wars. Opera? Konquerer? Or hell, at the time Mosaic? Had Netscape gone away, I guarantee Mosaic would've filled the void... and probably better because it had none of the ungodly bloat that they piled into Netscape. Are you forgetting that Webkit (basis of Safari and Chrome) have nothing to do with firefox?
  • by SexyKellyOsbourne (606860) on Friday October 28, 2011 @07:02PM (#37875048) Journal

    If it was 1996 or 1997, perhaps not too much different. But in 1994, that would change everything. That predates HTML 2, the first attempt at standardizing it. It predates Apache, Javascript and CSS. Late 1994 predates the web presences of Amazon, Craigslist, the New York Times, and Dell.

    The only well-visited site I can think of still in existence was the whitehouse.gov, and it was extremely primitive. Here's a mirror:

    http://www.iterasi.net/openviewer.aspx?sqrlitid=lqkszdizgkk3n6kga5zzja [iterasi.net]

    Basically, if Microsoft was able to redirect web development that early, they'd go for something very similar to what ActiveX was for vendor lockin. HTML would remain primitive, broken, and discarded. To make anything more than what was available, you would basically use Microsoft systems over HTTP.

    Instead of HTML, you'd use something like Visual Studio to create forms and graphics via drag-and-drop and upload .rc files with Access/VBScript like background controls. Video would be embedded as Microsoft Media Server (MMS) and would run locally.

    Taking that out to 2011, it'd probably be similar but sandboxed, and using a lot more XML. But nevertheless, you'd basically only be able to browse the web from OSS with something like WINE -- basically, a emulator/compatibility layer developed from a lot of reverse engineering that wasn't 100% reliable.

  • ..seeing as most website duhsigners totally ignore the original point of the browser arranging the content to suit the display device, the web would _look_ much the same, it would just be a different form of HTML being tied in knots.

  • ...most of us would be running Windows. Oh, wait...

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