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The Rise and Fall of the Original Web Start-Up

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 through software."

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

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