Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

The end of the line for Netscape? Nah.

Unless you’ve been living on another planet for the past few days, you can’t fail to have heard that Microsoft and AOL have settled their dispute for $750 million. And, as part of the bargain, AOL get to use IE as the rendering engine in its browser for free for the next 7 years.

Now as we know, AOL owns Netscape, and it was widely expected that eventually AOL would become fed up with MS and use Netscape’s Gecko rendering engine in its own browser. But now that’s very unlikely to happen. After all, IE is the most popular browser out there, so that’s what everyone designs to. Not all sites work in Gecko as yet – while I don’t think this is Gecko’s fault (more the fault of dumb browser-sniffers and web designers who use IE-only extensions to the web standards), if you’re an ISP with probably the largest concentration of non-savvy web users, it’s probably safer to use IE than get barraged with ‘Why won’t work in my browser?’ emails.
An AOL spokesperson in the Guardian article says there are no short-term plans to drop Netscape, and indeed a new version based on Mozilla 1.4 is being cooked up at the moment. And to be honest, I don’t think Netscape will get killed off entirely. Here’s why:

  • Firstly, AOL does use Gecko in its Mac OS X offering. While I’ve never used IE for Mac, apparently it’s not the fastest thing in the world and it does have its quirks, so since AOL own Netscape, Gecko would be a better choice. I imagine Apple are funding Safari for the same reason.
  • IE does not work on Unix. Or, at least it doesn’t now – a build for Sun Solaris was available but that was recently killed off. This may not seem like a major point, but think about this: use of Linux is growing, particularly in enterprise. Mozilla is the big Linux browser – many distros have it as the default, including the increasingly popular LindowsOS derivative. Only this week, the German government announced it was switching the majority of its computers to Linux. As the OS becomes easier for home users to handle, its user base will grow.
  • Microsoft let leak in a recent chatroom transcript that there will be no further standalone releases of Internet Explorer – IE7 will only be available to users of Windows Longhorn. And that’s not due out until 2005. By that time, there will have been no revisions in the IE codebase in nearly 3 years (IE6 SP1 was released in late Summer last year). Computer technology is moving faster, and while the likes of the Mozilla Organization and Opera Software are in a position to adapt their programs to suit hardware advances, Microsoft are not. It’s quite possible that in a year’s time, Mozilla and Opera will completely kick IE’s ass in the performance stakes.
  • This past year has seen inroads being made into IE’s browser market dominance. While we’re talking less than 1% here, as the word spreads that there are better alternatives, it’s quite possible that the tide will eventually turn.
  • More and more web commentators are ‘turning to the dark side’. These are the people who help form opinions. If they turn against IE, then perhaps so will the public.

You’ve probably noticed that I concentrate more on Mozilla here rather than Netscape, and, to be honest, this is deliberate – I don’t think Netscape itself has much of a future. From what I gather, Mozilla is already more popular than Netscape 6 and 7, and due to its open source nature it can be included in Linux distros without any licensing issues – to get a Linux distro with Netscape in it you will usually have to buy it on CD rather than just simply download an ISO. But if AOL keep the Mozilla Organization going, then it’s user base could certainly grow, if given time.
I seriously doubt we’re going to see another browser war, but even if IE only takes 90% of the market, it’s enough for web designers to take other browsers seriously.
I am probably being very over-optimistic here – after all, as long as IE is the default browser in Windows, people will use it. But if there are less people using Windows, which, if a few more corporations follow the German government’s example, then we may well be in for a sea change. And about time too.


  1. “Goodness! I had no idea! For you see, I have been on Mars for the past decade, in a cave with my eyes shut, and my fingers in my ears.”
    Hehe, The Simpsons.

  2. Sounds like a certain former minister here – he’s widely regarded as being the British Ambassador to Planet Zog.