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Netscape shareholder meeting sad for some

Approval is not in doubt and the stock is trading at an all-time high, but it's a sad day for those who have followed the company since its inception.

Today is the day that Netscape shareholders vote to ratify the company's acquisition by America Online.

Approval is not in doubt--Clark, Bark, and Marc have already signed on for the deal, and that's nearly 20 percent of total shares.

Although the stock is trading at an all-time high, it's a sad day for those who have followed the company since its inception. Netscape, an Internet pioneer, was largely responsible for creating the World Wide Web as a cultural and economic phenomenon. And soon it will be gone, never having achieved its full potential.

I write that sadly, because my own career has intersected closely with Netscape's short but intense life. I first interviewed cofounders Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen in May 1994 when they announced the formation of the company, after leaking the news to The New York Times. Company publicist Roseanne Siino has known from the start how to play the media to Netscape's advantage.

Back then, the company wasn't even Netscape. It was called Mosaic Communications, taking its name from the Web browser that Andreessen and a band of programmers had written at the University of Illinois supercomputing center. After the school squawked, the company changed its name to Netscape.

In August 1994, I was lured to Mosaic's office by the promise of interviewing Andreessen, who was a no-show because back then Marc really was hacking code. Instead, I spoke to a former Silicon Graphics product manager (Clark, Siino, and many of the early marketing people came from SGI) about its first products--the browser and a line of servers. Billionaire Clark stuck his head in the door, looking for change for the vending machine.

The corporate vision they presented remained remarkably consistent. One slide used in that briefing read, "Electronic commerce is the future of business." (Although the one that read "The Internet is the Information Highway" now seems a bit dated.) Netscape got the vision right, even if the execution was sometimes flawed and the competition was intense.

About a year later, I got a call from Netscape PR folks, asking if I would sit with Andreessen at an industry awards event where he was speaking. My mission: Engage Marc in conversation so nobody would bother him with tech support questions about their browsers. Marc was excited, as usual, but this time about a new buzzword called the "intranet," which encapsulated Netscape's strategy for the next 12 months.

Both at dinner and during his speech, Marc spoke faster than I could take notes. On the podium, he weaved around behind the microphone, fading in and out. I thought he needed a speech coach, until someone reminded me that Marc's presence was enhanced by not being polished. Now he's much smoother: Asked two months ago at an industry conference about his role at America Online, which was still unsettled, he got a laugh by responding, "I think I've already dodged that question."

It wasn't all fun and games with Netscape. In January 1998, I was assigned with multimedia producer Kevin Wood to go to the Mountain View campus and get employee reaction to the company's first-ever layoffs. The few employees who spoke to me refused to give their names, and within minutes security guards asked us to leave campus--we could stay on the sidewalk, a public right of way, and a security guard stayed about 20 feet away to be sure. Eventually, a public relations staffer asked us to leave altogether, so we did.

Over the last five years, the company has grown up, but what will its legacy be? Clearly it helped popularize the Internet by putting a commercial face on it. It began the tradition of Internet IPOs that soar far higher than justified by conventional investment criteria. It became the bull's eye that Microsoft aimed for, and its role as victim to the Redmond juggernaut instigated the big antitrust lawsuit now under way. How critical that will be depends on the outcome.

But the company never truly became a dominant player in Internet commerce software, despite having been the first to see the opportunity. It blundered in building so much into its Web browser that it became too large, and only belatedly did it recognize that building its software in pieces others could embed was a worthy goal.

It erred in overlooking the revenue potential of its hugely popular Web site for so long, letting others invent the concept "portal" when Netscape was the original. It acted arrogantly, not to mention foolishly, by boasting that its Web browser would make Windows irrelevant, instead of letting a sleeping giant lie. But in the end, Netscape fell short because it aimed so high.

Great potential, great drama--altogether a great run with Netscape. Too bad it had to end too soon.