DECEMBER 7, 1998 VOL. 152 NO. 23 SPECIAL ISSUE TIME 100/
BUILDERS & TITANS OF THE 20TH CENTURY
The Rise and Fall of the Original Web Start-Up
By JOSHUA QUITTNER
The California freeway from Mountain View to Cupertino was
jammed late Tuesday afternoon. Netscape's entire work force was
traveling as if in procession to a nearby college
auditorium--one big enough to accommodate all 1,200 for what
would be the saddest-ever of Netscape's legendary "all-hands"
meetings. The rumors had become official: America Online was
buying their feisty company. As you might imagine, none of the
people there greeted this as good news. "Netscape is dead," an
employee said bitterly. "This was the funeral."
An exhausted Jim Barksdale, the veteran CEO who had been hired
to figure out how the scrappy start-up could survive against all
odds--against Microsoft!--sat in a hard chair on the edge of the
stage and did his genteel best to calm his people. How many of
you came to Netscape because we acquired your company? he asked.
A quarter of the employees in the room raised their hands. Well,
said Barksdale, this is just another acquisition.
Oh, but it's not! A lot of us were rooting for Netscape. We
didn't want to see it get downsized, restructured or swallowed
up. Netscape wasn't just another Silicon Valley software
company, any more than Apple is just another computer maker.
Netscape stood for something grand, something transcendental and
empowering. It gave people the tools to communicate their ideas
cheaply or sell their stuff to anyone on the planet without
going through middlemen, censors, gatekeepers or even the IRS.
On Dec. 15, 1994, the Internet browser known as Netscape
Navigator 1.0 was launched, and the world--or at least the World
Wide Web--changed with the click of a mouse. Within four months
75% of all Net users were peering at the Web through the window
of the Netscape browser. Netscape's co-founder Marc Andreessen
and his band of brainy programmers grabbed the world's
fastest-growing market despite an entrenched competitor: NSCA
Mosaic, the breakthrough browser Andreessen himself had helped
write as a student at the University of Illinois.
Netscape's exploding popularity was almost unimaginable.
Suddenly, www.website addresses were everywhere--on billboards,
buses, blimps. How do you surf the Net? With a browser! With
Netscape! "We were the ones who put the Internet in people's
homes," says Jamie Zawinski, Netscape employee No. 20. Zawinski
is typical of the kind of person who gravitated to Netscape in
those early years. When he applied to Andreessen for a job, his
resume listed his career objective as "To improve people's lives
Netscape's software did that. So well, in fact, that
Microsoft--which manages to play the heavy in every
computer-industry drama--moved in and proceeded to pound our
darling company into the ground. While Barksdale publicly
displayed bravado--There's plenty of room for both of us! he
declared--he was moving swiftly on two fronts. He turned to the
Justice Department for antitrust relief, and he started looking
for an exit strategy. So while the district court in Washington
moved at its glacial pace to determine whether Microsoft had
violated the public trust, Netscape scampered at Net speed into
AOL's $4.2 billion embrace. Hum a dirge, friend, and light a
candle to your info gods. Netscape, we hardly knew ye.END