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What if Netscape had won?

On the eve of the anniversary of the Mosaic Web browser, CNET's Charles Cooper ponders how things might have evolved had the browser wars turned out differently.

It's anniversary season in Silicon Valley. When March 10 rolled around, the San Francisco Bay Area's media dutifully marked the three-year anniversary of the peak of the Internet frenzy with the usual menu of "then and now" stories. Truth be told, it was a date few people in this region--let alone the wider computer industry--cared to fix in their calendars.

Almost 5,000 Internet companies have either been acquired or gone bust since 1999, and the computer industry, which boomed during the go-go era, is still dealing with the fallout from the dot-com collapse. But another big anniversary is around the bend: Next month will mark 10 years since the invention of the Mosaic Web browser, a seminal development that led to the subsequent creation of Netscape.

Netscape these days survives as a desolate outpost in the vast AOL Time Warner empire, something akin to banishment to Irkutsk. Note to AOL's people in PR: Don't bother calling to explain why I'm wrong and how this forgotten software unit still plays a critical part in the overall company's future. It ain't happening. In fact, the only reason more critics aren't seizing on the utter embarrassment that is today Netscape is because they're having too much fun picking on senior management for their laundry list of blunders.

You don't need to be a "Netscapee" to bemoan the demise of what once was the hottest company in the tech kingdom. I'm not going to waste time revisiting the much-chronicled sequence of events that led to its besting by Microsoft and subsequent acquisition by America Online. But what might have been had Netscape won--or at a minimum, not lost--the browser war against Microsoft? Indulge me for a moment.

Windows RIP
Microsoft needed to take out Netscape because nothing less than the future of the Windows desktop monopoly was at stake. If Netscape had successfully transformed the Internet browser into a popular middleware platform, the need for a proprietary computing operating system would have become increasingly irrelevant, and Bill Gates might have wound up turning into the next Chris Hassett. Remember him? My point exactly.

Finally, a truly cool browser
There's nothing particularly bad about the current state of browser technology--that is if you are frozen in a time warp, circa 1999. But for the rest of the Internet-surfing inhabitants of planet Earth,

Netscape these days survives as a desolate outpost in the vast AOL Time Warner empire, something akin to banishment to Irkutsk.
Internet browser design stopped being interesting years ago. That's simply because Microsoft no longer faces any challenge that forces it to innovate. If Microsoft were still trailing behind Netscape, Internet Explorer would be a far better product. That's what competition's all about. If the forward and back arrows constitute the last stage in Internet browser interface design, then we're an awfully sorry lot.

A new set of tech gurus
Silicon Valley's cult of personality would embrace Jim Clark, Jim Barksdale and Marc Andreessen. At the very least, they'd still be relevant to the technology conversation. They had their 15 minutes of fame, but we're now back to hanging on Bill Gates' every last word--just as we were when I first began covering the tech beat in 1985. So much for regime change.

The end of the PC
Applications that would have sat on top of the browser would have been smaller and not dependent on Wintel designs. Would it have signaled the end of the PC as we know it? Perhaps not but a Netscape-centric would have cleared the way for a multiplicity of new devices and applications, such as browsing from your home phone. At the very least, the open-source movement would have found solid footing sooner than it eventually did.

I know more than a few of you are ready to give me an argument. But while we can debate the ifs, buts and what-might-have-beens until the cows come home, the computing world is not better off as a result of Netscape's diminution to the point of irrelevance. And now it's your turn. Best response wins a Melinda Gates autographed copy of Microsoft Bob. Write me.