R.I.P. Netscape Browser (1994-2008)

>> Saturday, December 29, 2007

AOL, the company that currently owns the Netscape browser, has announced that they won't be supporting Netscape after February of the coming year. And so an era that you didn't know was ongoing comes to an end.

Let's face it, Netscape hasn't been relevant for years and years. But for a little while there, Netscape was the alternative to Internet Explorer. And of course Netscape was a major player in the Microsoft antitrust suit--which was unfortunate, actually, because Microsoft's attempts to integrate browser and OS were sensible and forward-looking, if poorly implemented.

The browser and the OS should have some continuity--you can't tell it from the way Microsoft went about it with that "Active Desktop" crap they stuffed into Windows 95. But take a look at the way Konqueror works on earlier versions of KDE, and you can see how a continuous interface might work. (Konqueror is still present in KDE, but is being pushed aside as a file browser by a component called Dolphin, in the unlikely event you care.)

But I'm already boring you, and that's exactly how the browser sideshow became the unfortunate main event in the DOJ's antitrust case: because operating systems (and their interfaces) are confusing and boring while the Interwebertubernets is the future of information and the matrix and cyberpunk and stuff. If you control the Interwebertubernets, you control the destiny of man and the human brain and the future... sure, it may look like a bunch of porn now, but just wait and see.

The real issue that DOJ should have focused on--where Microsoft's evil moustache-twirling plans have involved girlfriends tied up in a lumber mill and threatened with the bandsaw--was the bootloader issue. And your eyes are glazing over already. Wake up! Interwebertubernets! Sorry, just trying to get your attention.

The operating system, for those of you who don't know, is a batch of software that tells your computer how to be a computer. If you think of your computer as being a brain, the operating system is potty training, preschool and kindergarten--numbers and shoelace tying and not peeing in bed. The OS tells your computer how to use a disk drive and read programs and display output.

You can actually have as many OSes on your computer as you want, as long as the OSes can talk to your hardware--Apple hardware is picky, but your typical PC can have Windows, Linux, OS/2, BeOS, NeXT and DOS all happily side-by-side unless one of them tries to pretend it's the only OS installed and tries to write over its companions. (Hm... who would do that, I wonder?)

Only one of the OSes can run at a time (yes, I know about virtualization and emulation, we were trying to keep it simple, eh?)--and this is where a bootloader comes into play. A bootloader is simply a piece of software that loads right after the BIOS (if your computer is a brain and the OS is your early education, the BIOS is sort of like the cerebellum--a primitive and simple bit that tells your heart to beat and handles similar autonomic functions) and asks you which operating system you'd like to run.

You can have eight (or eighty, or eight hundred) different OSes installed on your computer, but if one of them thinks it's the only one there and there's no bootloader to tell it otherwise, that OS will always load to the exclusion of the others. Not that any company would set their OS up to cockblock every other OS in existence... right?

Well, actually, that's exactly what Microsoft did. It turns out that, back in the day, a would-be Microsoft rival basically tried to give away their operating system. No, it wasn't Linux or some other pie-in-the-sky communist/socialist/hippie OS, and it wasn't a piece-of-shit OS written in someone's basement, either. BeOS was a widely-acclaimed, stable operating system with a number of features that eventually found their way into Windows, Linux, Apple and other operating systems. But Be couldn't get anyone to actually buy BeOS, so they decided to pretty much give it away for much the same reasons a drug dealer on the corner might offer a free "taste."

The real key to the OS market is pre-installation: really, only geeks go out and buy an OS off the shelf (or download it as a torrent). Most people want to turn on the computer and have it already know that there's a CD drive already attached and that the monitor can display 64-bit color. And the hardware vendors aren't necessarily happy about having to kowtow to Microsoft--the Microsoft virtual monopoly means that Microsoft can guarantee terms to Dell or Acer or IBM/Lenovo, and what are they going to do about it, huh?

So Be went to the hardware vendors and said, "We'll be your alternative; we'll give you our OS so you can offer it to customers as a pre-install option." And the hardware vendors were interested--but they couldn't say yes.

See, Microsoft knows that the key is pre-installation. And Microsoft knows that if a computer boots and asks the user if he wants to use Windows or does he want to use Be (or OS/2, or Linux, or whatever), some user might choose NotWindows and like it. And then Microsoft is, to put it bluntly, fucked. Hard, kicked out of bed in the morning, and no goodbye kiss or promise to call later. So Microsoft appears to have made it a condition of their vendor license that Thou Shalt Not Have A Bootloader Giving Thy Customer An Alternate Choice; Dell can install two (or twenty) operating systems on a desktop PC, but if one of them is Windows, Windows has to boot first and no questions asked. That's the deal, or no Windows.

There's a lot of Windows software out there. Dell (or whoever) kinda needs Windows even when Microsoft's licensing conditions are hurtful or expensive; it's an abusive relationship. When Be offered to give computer vendors a free distribution license, only one vendor said yes (if I recall correctly, it was Acer), and they buried the option to launch BeOS inside a Windows menu (as opposed to a user choice at startup).

Now this is the real crux of Microsoft's anticompetitive practices, no? It's not that Internet Explorer is right there on the desktop, or that Microsoft is trying to integrate file management with internet browsing--those things are actually good for the consumer. It's useful to be able to look at the contents of your hard drive and the contents of the Interwebertubernets in the same browser window. But it's not good for a consumer to have no choice of OS at the store or at startup--there's no good reason for a user not to be have a buffet of choices. (Plenty of power users set up their systems to do exactly that.) Maybe 90% of consumers would default to Windows anyway, but it would be because Windows was the best choice, not because every other choice was blocked. And if users started consistently picking NotWindows at startup, maybe Microsoft would need to be more responsive to users' needs.

But this wasn't the issue DOJ litigated: bootloaders aren't sexy. But Interwebertubernets were very, very, very sexy in the '90s, what with the dot-com boom and all, so Netscape became the government's main collaborator in the Microsoft antitrust suit, the bootloader issue was marginalized, and Windows was crippled. And yet Microsoft's quasi-monopoly wasn't significantly compromised in any way, and the commercial alternatives to Windows are all basically dead. (Oh wait, how could I forget about eComStation!) If Linux wasn't free, it would be dead, too.

And now Netscape, the belle of the DOJ ball, is dead. It was a good browser in its day, and then it wasn't. In the end, the Netscape legacy may not be that it was a powerful and stable browser that laid the foundations for Mozilla and its progeny; Netscape's legacy may be that they became the red herring in the Microsoft antitrust case, guaranteeing Microsoft's market dominance for the foreseeable future. Irony, anyone?

Well. We'll always have Firefox.


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