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Chapter 10: Browser War

In June of 1995, representatives from Microsoft arrived at the Netscape office. The stated goal was to find ways to work together—Netscape as the single dominant force in the browser market and Microsoft as a tech giant just beginning to consider the implications of the Internet. Both groups, however, were suspicious of ulterior motives.

Marc Andreessen was there. He was already something of a web celebrity. Newly appointed Netscape CEO James Barksdale also came. On the Microsoft side was a contingent of product managers and engineers hoping to push Microsoft into the Internet market.

The meeting began friendly enough, as the delegation from Microsoft shared what they were working on in the latest version of their operating system, Windows 95. Then, things began to sour.

 

According to accounts from Netscape, “Microsoft offered to make an investment in Netscape and give Netscape’s software developers crucial technical information about the Windows operating system if Netscape would agree not to make a browser for [the] Windows 95 operating system.” If that was to be believed, Microsoft would have tiptoed over the line of what is legal. The company would be threatening to use its monopoly to squash competition.

Andreessen, no stranger to dramatic flair, would later dress the meeting up with a nod to The Godfather in his deposition to the Department of Justice: “I expected to find a bloody computer monitor in my bed the next day.”

Microsoft claimed the meeting was a “setup,” initiated by Netscape to bait them into a comprising situation they could turn to their advantage later.

There are a few different places to mark the beginning of the browser wars. The release of Internet Explorer 1, for instance (late summer, 1995). Or the day Andreessen called out Microsoft as nothing but a “poorly debugged set of device drivers” (early 1995). But June 21, 1995—when Microsoft and Netscape came to a meeting as conceivable friends and left as bitter foes—may be the most definitive.


Andreessen called it “free, but not free.”

Here’s how it worked. When the Netscape browser was released it came with fee of $39 per copy. That was officially speaking. But fully function Netscape beta versions were free to download for their website. And universities and non-profits could easily get zero-cost licenses.

For the upstarts of the web revolution and open source tradition, Netscape was free enough. For the buttoned-up corporations buying in bulk with specific contractual needs, they could license the software for a reasonable fee. Free, but not free. “It looks free optically, but it is not,” a Netscape employee would later describe it. “Corporations have to pay for it. Maintenance has to be paid.”

“It’s basically a Microsoft lesson, right?” was how Andreessen framed it. “If you get ubiquity, you have a lot of options, a lot of ways to benefit from that.” If people didn’t have a way to get quick and easy access to Netscape, it would never spread. It was a lesson Andreessen had learned behind his computer terminal at the NCSA research lab at the University of Illinois. Just a year prior, he and his friends built the wildly successful, cross-platform Mosaic browser.

Andreessen worked on Mosaic for several years in the early ’90’s. But he began to feel cramped by increasing demands from higher-ups at NCSA hoping to capitalize on the browser’s success. At the end of 1993, Andreessen headed west, to stake his claim in Silicon Valley. That’s where he met James Clark.

Netscape Communications Corporation co-founders Jim Clark, left, and Marc Andreessen (AP Photo/HO)

Clark had just cut ties with Silicon Graphics, the company he created. A legend in the Bay Area, Clark was well known in the valley. When he saw the web for the first time, someone suggested he meet with Andreessen. So he did. The two hit it off immediately.

Clark—with his newly retired time and fortune—brought an inner circle of tech visionaries together for regular meetings. “For the invitees, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to talk about ideas, technologies, strategies,” one account would later put it. “For Clark, it was the first step toward building a team of talented like-minded people who populate his new company.” Andreessen, still very much the emphatic and relentless advocate of the web, increasingly moved to the center of this circle.

The duo considered several ideas. None stuck. But they kept coming back to one. Building the world’s first commercial browser.

And so, on a snowy day in mid-April 1994, Andreessen and Clark took a flight out to Illinois. They were there with a single goal: Hire the members of the original Mosaic team still working at the NCSA lab for their new company. They went straight to the lobby of a hotel just outside the university. One by one, Clark met with five of the people who had helped create Mosaic (plus Lou Montulli, creator of Lynx and a student at University of Kansas) and offered them a job.

Right in a hotel room, Clark printed out contracts with lucrative salaries and stock options. Then he told them the mission of his new company. “Its mandate—Beat Mosaic!—was clear,” one employee recalled. By the time Andreessen and Clark flew back to California the next day, they’d have the six new employees of the soon-to-be-named Netscape.

Within six months they would release their first browser—Netscape Navigator. Six months after that, the easy-to-use, easy-to-install browser, would overrun the market and bring millions of users online for the first time.

Clark, speaking to the chaotic energy of the browser team and the speed at which they built software that changed the world, would later say Netscape gave “anarchy credibility.” Writer John Cassidy puts that into context. “Anarchy in the post-Netscape sense meant that a group of college kids could meet up with a rich eccentric, raise some money from a venture capitalist, and build a billion-dollar company in eighteen months,” adding, “Anarchy was capitalism as personal liberation.”


Inside of Microsoft were a few restless souls.

The Internet, and the web, was passing the tech giant by. Windows was the most popular operating system in the world—a virtual monopoly. But that didn’t mean they weren’t vulnerable.

As early as 1993, three employees at Microsoft—Steven Sinofsky, J. Allard, and Benjamin Slivka—began to sound the alarms. Their uphill battle to make Microsoft realize the promise of the Internet is documented in the “Inside Microsoft” profile penned by Kathy Rebell, which published in Bloomberg in 1996. “I dragged people into my office kicking and screaming,” Sinofsky told Rebello, “I got people excited about this stuff.”

Some employees believed Microsoft was distracted by a need to control the network. Investment poured into a proprietary network, like CompuServe or Prodigy, called the Microsoft Network (or MSN). Microsoft wanted to control the entire networked experience. But MSN would ultimately be a huge failure.

Slivka and Allard believed Microsoft was better positioned to build with the Internet rather than compete against it. “Microsoft needs to ensure that we ride the success of the Web, instead of getting drowned by it,” wrote Slivka in some of his internal communication.

Allard went a step further, drafting an internal memo named “Windows: The Next Killer Application for the Internet.” Allard’s approach, laid out in the document, would soon be the cornerstone of Microsoft’s Internet strategy. It consisted of three parts. First, embrace the open standards of the web. Second, extend its technology to the Microsoft ecosystem. Finally (and often forgotten), innovate and improve web technologies.

After a failed bid to acquire BookLink’s InternetWorks browser in 1994—AOL swooped in and outbid them—Microsoft finally got serious about the web. And their meeting with Netscape didn’t yield any results. Instead, they negotiated a deal with NCSA’s commercial partner Spyglass to license Mosaic for the first Microsoft browser.

In August of 1995, Microsoft released Internet Explorer version 1.0. It wasn’t very original, based on code that Spyglass had licensed to dozens of other partners. Shipped as part of an Internet Jumpstart add-on, the browser was bare-bones, clunkier and harder to use than what Netscape offered.

Source: Web Design Museum

On December 7th, Bill Gates hosted a large press conference on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. He opened with news about the Microsoft Network, the star of the show. But he also demoed Internet Explorer, borrowing language directly from Allard’s proposal. “So the Internet, the competition will be kind of, once again, embrace and extend,” Gates announced, “And we will embrace all the popular Internet protocols… We will do some extensions to those things.”

Microsoft had entered the market.


Like many of her peers, Rosanne Siino began learning the world of personal computing on her own. After studying English in college—with an eye towards journalism—Siino found herself at a PR firm with clients like Dell and Seagate. Siino was naturally curious and resourceful, and read trade magazines and talked to engineers to learn what she could about personal computing in the information age.

She developed a special talent for taking the language and stories of engineers and translating them into bold visions of the future. Friendly, and always engaging, Siino built up a Rolodex of trade publication and general media contacts along the way.

After landing a job at Silicon Graphics, Siino worked closely with James Clark (he would later remark she was “one of the best PR managers at SGI”). She identified with Clark’s restlessness when he made plans to leave the company—an exit she helped coordinate—and decided if the opportunity came to join his new venture, she’d jump ship.

A few months later, she did. Siino was employee number 19 at Netscape; its first public relations hire.

When Siino arrived at the brand new Netscape offices in Mountain View, the first thing she did was sit down and talk to each one of the engineers. She wanted to hear—straight from the source—what the vision of Netscape was. She heard a few things. Netscape was building a “killer application,” one that would make other browsers irrelevant. They had code that was better, faster, and easier to use than anything out there.

Siino knew she couldn’t sell good code. But a young and hard working group of fresh-out-of-college transplants from rural America making a run at entrenched Silicon Valley; that was something she could sell. “We had this twenty-two-year-old kid who was pretty damn interesting and I thought, ‘There’s a story right there,’” she later said in an interview for the book Architects of the Web, “‘And we had this crew of kids who had come out from Illinois and I thought, ‘There’s a story there too.’”

Inside of Netscape, some executives and members of the board had been talking about an IPO. With Microsoft hot on their heels, and competitor Spyglass launching a successful IPO of their own, timing was critical. “Before very long, Microsoft was sure to attack the Web browser market in a more serious manner,” writer John Cassidy explains, “If Netscape was going to issue stock, it made sense to do so while the competition was sparse.” Not to mention, a big, flashy IPO was just what the company needed to make headlines all around the country.

In the months leading up to the IPO, Siino crafted a calculated image of Andreeseen for the press. She positioned him as a leader of the software generation, an answer to the now-stodgy, Silicon-driven hardware generation of the 60’s and 70’s. In interviews and profiles, Siino made sure Andreeseen came off as a whip-smart visionary ready to tear down the old ways of doing things; the “new Bill Gates.”

That required a fair bit of cooperation from Andreeseen. “My other real challenge was to build up Marc as a persona,” she would later say. Sometimes, Andreessen would complain about the interviews, “but I’d be like, ‘Look, we really need to do this.’ And he’s savvy in that way. He caught on.’” Soon, it was almost natural, and as Andreeseen traveled around with CEO James Barksdale to talk to potential investors ahead of their IPO, Netscape hype continued to inflate.

August 9, 1995, was the day of the Netscape IPO. Employees buzzed around the Mountain View offices, too nervous to watch the financial news beaming from their screens or the TV. “It was like saying don’t notice the pink elephant dancing in your living room,” [Siino said later]. They shouldn’t have worried. In its first day of trading, the Netscape stock price rose 108%. It was best opening day for a stock on Wall Street. Some of the founding employees went to bed that night millionaires.

Not long after, Netscape released version 2 of their browser. It was their most ambitious release to date. Bundled in the software were tools for checking email, talking with friends, and writing documents. It was sleek and fast. The Netscape homepage that booted up each time the software started sported all sorts of nifty and well-known web adventures.

Not to mention JavaScript. Netscape 2 was the first version to ship with Java applets, small applications run directly in the browser. With Java, Netscape aimed to compete directly with Microsoft and their operating system.

To accompany the release, Netscape recruited young programmer Brendan Eich to work on a scripting language that riffed on Java. The result was JavaScript. Ecih created the first version in 10 days as a way for developers to make pages more interactive and dynamic. It was primitive, but easy to grasp, and powerful. Since then, it has become one of the most popular programming languages in the world.

Microsoft wasn’t far behind. But Netscape felt confident. They had pulled off the most ambitious product the web had ever seen. “In a fight between a bear and an alligator, what determines the victor is the terrain,” Andreessen said in an interview from the early days of Netscape. “What Microsoft just did was move into our terrain”


There’s an old adage at Microsoft, that it never gets something right until version 3.0. It was true even of their flagship product, Windows, and has notoriously been true of its most famous applications.

The first version of Internet Explorer was a rushed port of the Mosaic code that acted as little more than a a public statement that Microsoft was going into the browser business. The second version, released just after Netscape’s IPO in late 1995, saw rapid iteration, but lagged far behind. With Internet Explorer 3, Microsoft began to get the browser right.

Microsoft’s big, showy press conference hyped Internet Explorer as a true market challenger. Behind the scenes, it operated more like a skunkworks experiment. Six people were on the original product team. In a company of tens of thousands. “A bit like the original Mac team, the IE team felt like the vanguard of Microsoft,” one-time Internet Explorer lead Brad Silverberg would later say, “the vanguard of the industry, fighting for its life.”

That changed quickly. Once Microsoft recognized the potential of the web, they shifted their weight to it. In Speeding the Net, a comprehensive account of the rise of Netscape and its fall at the hands of Microsoft, authors Josh Quittner and Michelle Slatall, describe the Microsoft strategy. “In a way, the quality of it didn’t really matter. If the first generation flopped, Gates could assign a team of his best and brightest programmers to write an improved model. If that one failed too, he could hire even better programmers and try again. And again. And again. He had nearly unlimited resources.”

By version 3, the Internet Explorer team had a hundred people on it (including Chris Wilson of the original NCSA Mosaic team). That number would reach the thousands in a few short years. The software rapidly closed the gap. Internet Explorer introduced features that had given Netscape an edge—and even introduced their own HTML extensions, dynamic animation tools for developers, and rudimentary support of CSS.

In the summer of 1996, Walt Mossberg talked up Microsoft’s browsers. Only months prior he had labeled Netscape Navigator the “clear victor.” But he was beginning to change his mind. “I give the edge, however, to Internet Explorer 3.0,” he wrote upon Microsoft’s version 3. “It’s a better browser than Navigator 3.0 because it is easier to use and has a cleaner, more flexible user interface.”

Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0.01152
Netscape Navigator 3.04

Still, most Microsoft executives knew that competing on features would never be enough. In December of 1996, senior VP James Allchin emailed his boss, Paul Maritz. He laid out the current strategy, an endless chase after Netscape’s feature set. “I don’t understand how IE is going to win,” Allchin conceded, “My conclusion is that we must leverage Windows more.” In the same email, he added, “We should think first about an integrated solution — that is our strength.” Microsoft was not about to simply lie down and allow themselves to be beaten. They focused on two things: integration with Windows and wider distribution.

When it was released, Internet Explorer 4 was more tightly integrated with the operating system than any previous version; an almost inseparable part of the Windows package. It could be used to browse files and folders. Its “push” technology let you stream the web, even when you weren’t actively using the software. It used internal APIs that were unavailable to outside developers to make the browser faster, smoother, and readily available.

And then there was distribution. Days after Netscape and AOL shook on a deal to include their browser on the AOL platform, AOL abruptly changed their mind and when with Internet Explorer instead. It would later be revealed that Microsoft had made them, as one writer put it (extending The Godfather metaphor once more), an “offer they couldn’t refuse.” Microsoft had dropped their prices down to the floor and—more importantly—promised AOL precious real estate pre-loaded on the desktop of every copy of the next Windows release.

Microsoft fired their second salvo with Compaq. Up to that point, all Compaq computers had shipped with Netscape pre-installed on Windows. When Windows threatened to suspend their license to use Windows at all (which was revealed later in court documents), that changed to Internet Explorer too.

By the time Windows ’98 was released, Internet Explorer 4 came already installed, free for every user, and impossible to remove.


“Mozilla!” interjected Jamie Zawinski. He was in a meeting at the time, which now rang in deafening silence for just a moment. Heads turned. Then, they kept going.

This was early days at Netscape. A few employees from engineering and marketing huddled together to try to come up with a name for the thing. One employee suggested they were going to crush Mosaic, like a bug. Zawinski—with a dry, biting humor he was well known for—thought Mozilla, “as in Mosaic meets Godzilla.”

Eventually, marketer Greg Sands settled on Netscape. But around the office, the browser was, from then on, nicknamed Mozilla. Early marketing materials on the web even featured a Mozilla inspired mascot, a green lizard with a know-it-all smirk, before they shelved it for something more professional.

Credit: Dave Titus
Credit: Dave Titus
Credit: Dave Titus

It would be years before the name would come back in any public way; and Zawinski would have a hand in that too.

Zawinski had been with Netscape since almost the beginning. He was employee number 20, brought in right after Rosanne Siino, to replace the work that Andreessen had done at NCSA working on the flagship version of Netscape for X-Windows. By the time he joined, he already had something of a reputation for solving complex technical challenges.

Jaime Zawinski

Zawinski’s earliest memories of programming date back to eighth grade. In high school, he was a terrible student. But he still managed to get a job after school as a programmer, working on the one thing that managed to keep him interested: code. After that, he started work for the startup Lucid, Inc., which boasted a strong pedigree of programming legends at its helm. Zawinski worked on the Common Lisp programming language and the popular IDE Emacs; technologies revered in the still small programming community. By virtue of his work on the projects, Zawinski had instant credibility among the tech elite.

At Netscape, the engineering team was central to the way things worked. It was why Siino had chosen to meet with members of that team as soon as she began, and why she crafted the story of Netscape around the way they operated. The result was a high-pressure, high-intensity atmosphere so indispensable company that it would become party of the companies mythology. They moved so quickly that many began to call such a rapid pace of development “Netscape Time.”

“It was really a great environment. I really enjoyed it,” Zawinski would later recall. “Because everyone was so sure they were right, we fought constantly but it allowed us to communicate fast.” But tempers did flare (one article details a time when he threw a chair against the wall and left abruptly for two weeks after his computer crashed), and many engineers would later reflect on the toxic workplace. Zawinski once put it simply: “It wasn’t healthy.”

Still, engineers had a lot of sway at the organization. Many of them, Zawinski included, were advocates of free software. “I guess you can say I’ve been doing free software since I’ve been doing software,” he would later say in an interview. For Zawinski, software was meant to be free. From his earliest days on the Netscape project, he advocated for a more free version of the browser. He and others on the engineering team were at least partly responsible for the creative licensing that went into the company’s “free, but not free” business model.

In 1997, technical manager Frank Hecker breathed new life into the free software paradigm. He wrote a 30-page whitepaper proposing what several engineers had wanted for years—to release the entire source of the browser for free. “The key point I tried to make in the document,” Hecker asserted, “was that in order to compete effectively Netscape needed more people and companies working with Netscape and invested in Netscape’s success.”

With the help of CTO Eric Hahn, Hecker and Zawinski made their case all the way to the top. By the time they got in the room with James Barksdale, most of the company had already come around to the idea. Much to everyone’s surprise, Barksdale agreed.

On January 23, 1998, Netscape made two announcements. The first everyone expected. Netscape had been struggling to compete with Microsoft for nearly a year. The most recent release of Internet Explorer version 4, bundled directly into the Windows operating system for free, was capturing ever larger portions of their market share. So Netscape announced it would be giving its browser away for free too.

The next announcement came as a shock. Netscape was going open source. The browser’s entire source code—millions of lines of code—would be released to the public and open to contributions from anybody in the world. Led by Netscape veterans like Michael Toy, Tara Hernandez, Scott Collins, and Jamie Zawinski, the team would have three months to excise the code base and get it ready for public distribution. The effort had a name too: Mozilla.

Firefox 1.0 (Credit: Web Design Museum)

On the surface, Netscape looked calm and poised to take on Microsoft with the force of the open source community at their wings. Inside the company, things looked much different. The three months that followed were filled with frenetic energy, close calls, and unparalleled pace. Recapturing the spirit of the earliest days of innovation at Netscape, engineers worked frantically to patch bugs and get the code ready to be released to the world. In the end, they did it, but only by the skin of their teeth.

In the process, the project spun out into an independent organization under the domain Mozilla.org. It was staffed entirely by Netscape engineers, but Mozilla was not technically a part of Netscape. When Mozilla held a launch party in April of 1998, just months after their public announcement, it didn’t just have Netscape members in attendance.

Zawinski had organized the party, and he insisted that a now growing community of people outside the company who had contributed to the project be a part of it. “We’re giving away the code. We’re sharing responsibility for development of our flagship product with the whole net, so we should invite them to the party as well,” he said, adding, “It’s a new world.”


On the day of his testimony in November of 1998, Steve McGeady sat, as one writer described, “motionless in the witness box.” He had been waiting for this moment for a long time; the moment when he could finally reveal, in his view, the nefarious and monopolist strain that coursed through Microsoft.

The Department of Justice had several key witnesses in their antitrust case against Microsoft, but McGeady was a linchpin. As Vice President at Intel, McGeady had regular dealings with Microsoft; and his company stood outside of the Netscape and Microsoft conflict. There was an extra layer of tension to his particular testimony though. “The drama was heightened immeasurably by one stark reality,” noted in one journalist’s accounting of the trial, “nobody—literally, nobody—knew what McGeady was going to say.”

When he got his chance to speak, McGeady testified that high-ranking Microsoft executives had told him that their goal was to “cut off Netscape’s air supply.” Using their monopoly position in the operating system market, Microsoft threatened computer manufacturers—many of whom Intel had regular dealings—to ship their computers with Internet Explorer or face having their Windows licenses revoked entirely.

Drawing on the language Bill Gates used in his announcement of Internet Explorer, McGeady claimed that one executive had laid out their strategy: “embrace, extend and extinguish.” According to his allegations, Microsoft never intended to enter into a competition with Netscape. They were ready to use every aggressive tactic and walk the line of legality to crush them. It was a major turning point for the case and a massive win for the DOJ.

The case against Microsoft, however, had begun years earlier, when Netscape retained a team from the antitrust law firm Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in the summer of 1995. The legal team included outspoken anti-Microsoft crusader Gary Reback, as well as Susan Creighton. Reback would be the most public member of the firm in the coming half-decade, but it would be Creighton’s contributions that would ultimately turn the attention of the DOJ. Creighton began her career as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner. She quickly developed a reputation for precision and thoroughness. Her patterned, deliberate and methodical approach made her a perfect fit for a full and complete breakdown of Microsoft’s anti-competitive strategy.

Susan Creighton (Credit: Wilson Sonsini Goorich & Rosati)

Creighton’s work with Netscape led her to write a two-hundred and twenty-two page document detailing the anti-competitive practices of Microsoft. She laid out her case plain, and simply. “It is about a monopolist (Microsoft) that has maintained its monopoly (desktop operating systems) for more than ten years. That monopoly is threatened by the introduction of a new technology (Web software)…”

The document was originally planned as a book, but Netscape feared that if the public knew just how much danger they were in from Microsoft, their stock price would plummet. Instead, Creighton and Netscape handed it off the Department of Justice.

Inside the DOJ, it would trigger a renewed interest in ongoing antitrust investigations of Microsoft. Years of subpoenaing, information gathering, and lengthy depositions would follow. After almost three years, in May of 1998, the Department of Justice and 20 state attorneys filed an antitrust suit against Microsoft, a company which had only just then crossed over a 50% share of the browser market.

“No firm should be permitted to use its monopoly power to develop a chokehold on the browser software needed to access the Internet,” announced Janet Reno—the prosecuting attorney general under President Clinton—when charges were brought against Microsoft.

At the center of the trial was not necessarily the stranglehold Microsoft had on the software of personal computers—not technically an illegal practice. It was the way they used their monopoly to directly counter competition in other markets. For instance, the practice threatening to revoke licenses to manufacturers that packaged computers with Netscape. Netscape’s account of the June 1995 meeting factored in as well (when Andreessen was asked why he had taken such detailed notes on the meeting, he replied “I thought that it might be a topic of discussion at some point with the US government on antitrust issues.”)

Throughout the trial, both publicly and privately, Microsoft reacted to scrutiny poorly. They insisted that they were right; that they were doing what was best for the customers. In interviews and depositions, Bill Gates would often come off as curt and dismissive, unable or unwilling to yield to any cessation of power. The company insisted that the browser and operating system were co-existent, one could not live without the other—a fact handily refuted by the judge when he noted that he had managed to uninstall Internet Explorer from Windows in “less than 90 seconds.” The trial became a national sensation as tech enthusiasts and news junkies waited with bated breath for each new revelation.

Microsoft President Bill Gates, left, testifies on Capitol Hill, and Tuesday, March 3, 1998. (Credit: Ken Cedeno/AP file photo)

In November of 1999, the presiding judge issued his ruling. Microsoft had, in fact, used its monopoly power and violated antitrust laws. That was followed in the summer of 2000 by a proposed remedy: Microsoft was to be broken up into two separate companies, one to handle its operating software, and the other its applications. “When Microsoft has to compete by innovating rather than reaching for its crutch of the monopoly, it will innovate more; it will have to innovate more. And the others will be free to innovate,” Iowa State Attorney General Tom Miller said after the judge’s ruling was announced.

That never happened. An appeal in 2002 resulted in a reversal of the ruling and the Department of Justice agreed to a lighter consent decree. By then, Internet Explorer’s market share stood at around 90%. The browser wars were, effectively, over.


“Are you looking for an alternative to Netscape and Microsoft Explorer? Do you like the idea of having an MDI user interface and being able to browse in multiple windows?… Is your browser slow? Try Opera.”

That short message announced Opera to the world for the first time in April of 1995, posted by the browser’s creators to a Usenet forum about Windows. The tone of the message—technically meticulous, a little pointed, yet genuinely idealistic—reflected the philosophy of Opera’s creators, Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner and Geir Ivarsøy. Opera, they claimed, was well-aligned with the ideology of the web.

Opera began as a project run out of the Norwegian telecommunications firm Telnor. Once it became stable, von Tetzchner and Ivarsøy rented space at Telnor to spin it out into an independent company. Not long after, they posted that announcement and released the first version of the Opera web browser.

The team at Opera was small, but focused and effective, loyal to the open web. “Browsers are in our blood,” Tetzchner would later say. Time and time again, the Opera team would prove that. They were staffed by the web’s true believers, and have often prided themselves on leading the development of web standards and an accessible web.

In the mid-to-late 90’s, Geir Ivarsøy was the first person to implement the CSS standard in any browser, in Opera 3.5. That would prove more than enough to convince the creator of CSS, Håkon Wium Lie, to join the company as CTO. Ian Hickson worked at Opera during the time he developed the CSS Acid Test at the W3C.

The original CSS Acid Test (Credit: Eric Meyer)

The company began developing a version of their browser for low-powered mobile devices in developing nations as early as 1998. They have often tried to push the entire web community towards web standards, leading when possible by example.

Years after the antitrust lawsuit of Microsoft, and resulting reversal in the appeal, Opera would find themselves embroiled in a conflict on a different front of the browser wars.

In 2007, Opera filed a complaint with the European Commission. Much like the case made by Creighton and Netscape, Opera alleged that Microsoft was abusing its monopoly position by bundling new versions of Internet Explorer with Windows 7. The EU had begun to look into allegations against Microsoft almost as soon as the Department of Justice, but the Opera complaint added a substantial and recent area of inquiry. Opera claimed that Microsoft was limiting user choice by making opaque additional browser options. “You could add more browsers, to give consumers a real choice between browsers, you put them in front of their eyeballs,” Lie said at the time of the complaint.

In Opera’s summary of their complaints they evoked in themselves the picture of a free and open web. Opera, they argued, were advocates of a web as the web was intended—accessible, universal, and egalitarian. Once again citing the language of “embrace, extend, and extinguish,” the company also called out Microsoft for trying to take control over the web standards process. “The complaint calls on Microsoft to adhere to its own public pronouncements to support these standards, instead of stifling them with its notorious ‘Embrace, Extend and Extinguish’ strategy,” it read.

The browser “ballot box“ (Credit: Ars Technica)

In 2010, the European Commission issued a ruling, forcing Microsoft to show a so-called “ballot box” to European users of Windows—a website users could see the first time they accessed the Internet that listed twelve alternative browsers to download, including Opera and Mozilla. Microsoft included this website in their European Windows installs for five years, until their obligation lapsed.


Netscape Navigator 5 never shipped. It echoes, unreleased, in the halls of software’s most public and recognized vaporware.

After Netscape open-sourced their browser as part of the Mozilla project, the focus of the company split. Between being acquired by AOL and continuing pressure from Microsoft, Netscape was on its last legs. The public trial of Microsoft brought some respite, but too little, too late. “It’s one of the great ironies here,” Netscape lawyer Gary Reback would later say, “after years of effort to get the government to do something, by [1998] Netscape’s body is already in the morgue.” Meanwhile, management inside of Netscape couldn’t decide how best to integrate with the Mozilla team. Rather than work alongside the open-source project, they continued to maintain a version of Netscape separate and apart from the public project.

In October of 1998, Brendan Eich—who was part of the core Mozilla team—published a post to the Mozilla blog. “It’s time to stop banging our heads on the old layout and FE codebase,” he wrote. “We’ve pulled more useful miles out of those vehicles than anyone rightly expected. We now have a great new layout engine that can view hundreds of top websites.”

Many Mozilla contributors agreed with the sentiment, but the rewrite Eich proposed would spell the project’s initial downfall. While Mozilla tinkered away on a new rendering engine for the browser—which would soon be known as Gecko—Netscape scrapped its planned version 5.

Progress ground to a halt. Zawinski, one of the Mozilla team members opposed to the rewrite, would later describe his frustration when he resigned from Netscape in 1999. “It constituted an almost-total rewrite of the browser, throwing us back six to 10 months. Now we had to rewrite the entire user interface from scratch before anyone could even browse the Web, or add a bookmark.” Scott Collins, one of the original Netscape programmers, would put it less diplomatically: “You can’t put 50 pounds of crap in a ten pound bag, it took two years. And we didn’t get out a 5.0, and that cost us everything, it was the biggest mistake ever.”

The result was a world-class browser with great standards support and a fast-running browser engine. But it wasn’t ready until April of 2000, when Netscape 6 was finally released. By then, Microsoft had eclipsed Netscape, owning 80% of the browser market. It would never be enough to take back a significant portion of that browser share.

“I really think the browser wars are over,” said one IT exec after the release of Netscape 6. He was right. Netscape would sputter out for years. As for Mozilla, that would soon be reborn as something else entirely.


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