Tom Drapeau, AOL’s director of the Netscape brand, announced in a blog post Friday that AOL will cease development on all Netscape web browsers on February 1, 2008. The company will continue to support the current version of the browser, Netscape 9, by releasing patches or security fixes until that date. After February 1, all development will stop.
Drapeau recommends that anyone running a Netscape-branded browser make the switch to Mozilla Firefox, the open-source browser upon which the last few versions of Netscape have been based.
"AOL’s focus on transitioning to an ad-supported web business leaves little room for the size of investment needed to get the Netscape browser to a point many of its fans expect it to be," he writes. "Given AOL’s current business focus and the success the Mozilla Foundation has had in developing critically-acclaimed products, we feel it’s the right time to end development of Netscape branded browsers, hand the reigns fully to Mozilla and encourage Netscape users to adopt Firefox."
Originally released in 1994 during the nascent days of the web, Netscape Navigator was the underdog contender in the "browser wars" of the late 1990s, when it faced stiff competition from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser. Even though Netscape championed web standards and was first to market with dozens of new features, Internet Explorer shipped on the desktop of every new Windows computer. So while Microsoft continued to enjoy the larger market share, Netscape, which needed to be downloaded and installed, lagged behind. This issue was central to the United States’ anti-trust case against Microsoft.
Eventually, AOL purchased the Netscape Communications Corporation in 1999 and released its browser code as the open-source Mozilla project.
Many believe the original Netscape died with the AOL purchase. Since then, the web browser scene has been rife with change — Mozilla gave way to the leaner, faster Firefox and Apple developed its own Safari browser — and Netscape’s browser has been rendered largely irrelevant. Indeed, as Drapeau points out, his team has failed to put a dent in IE’s dominance, and the latest release of the Netscape browser is simply "a skinned version of Firefox with a few extensions."
Security Watch blogger Ryan Naraine applauded AOL’s decision on Friday, pointing out that the latest Netscape releases lacked up-to-date security fixes, leaving their users vulnerable to attacks.
Asa Dotzler, one of Firefox’s original developers, greeted the news of Netscape’s demise with a simple, "Good riddance."
AOL’s Drapeau sullenly notes that any users feeling nostalgic for the days of old can install Netscape’s theme and extensions pack for Firefox.
There’s no word yet on what will happen to Netscape browser’s small engineering team, but all development and support for all Netscape browser products will end on February 1. Support for all versions of the software will be off-loaded to the Netscape community forum. Netscape.com will continue to live on as a web portal.