This morning I decided it was time to remove Netscape from my PC. I hadn’t used it since 2006, but it was still patiently sitting there in my hard drive, all 29 megabytes of it, like a faithful hound that’s grown much too old to hunt. When I clicked “remove” on the Windows XP Add or Remove Programs utility, it generated its own sad screen, with “Netscape Browser Uninstall” in generic serif italics in the upper left corner, white on blue, as if it were trying to remind me of the good old days of WordPerfect 5.0, acoustic couplers and AOL. “Don’t you want to go for one more run around the field?” Sorry, old boy. It’s time for you to go to sleep and hunt rabbits in the blue screens of heaven.
Truth to tell, I never used Netscape very much, because I didn’t spend much time online before 1997, by which time Internet Explorer already seemed like a better option. But it mediated my first introduction to the World Wide Web: on a monitor in my brother’s basement office at Cornell back in 1995 or 96. As we waited for the page to load, the little animated icon of comets passing a rapidly spinning planet caught my eye, as it was meant to — something to stare at while data slowly crawled in over the telephone line, with the not-so-subtle message that this is the future, we’ve arrived. From Mountain View, California to the outermost reaches of the atmosphere, it was nothing but blue-black skies from now on.
The architects of the first mass-market web browser were very conscious of metaphor. The Wikipedia quotes an article from Macworld, May 1995:
Netscape Communications wants you to forget all the highway metaphors you’ve ever heard about the Internet. Instead, think about an encyclopedia — one with unlimited, graphically rich pages, connections to E-mail and files, and access to Internet newsgroups and online shopping.
But who would write those pages? Who would build that wondrous new netscape? Microsoft won the first browser war (as geeks sententiously call it) by giving their product away, a foretaste of much to come. What they couldn’t have known was that users would not be content to merely explore the internet, and that profits would not be the main motivator of those who would go on to create not only most of the best and most useful content on the web, but also the open-source code that now runs a great deal of it: Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP, WordPress, and of course Firefox, which is my main browser these days. That much neither Microsoft nor Netscape could have foreseen. But every time I upload files to Dropbox, Vimeo, Flickr or Google Docs, I am in a way indebted to Netscape’s starry-eyed vision:
Netscape advertised that “the web is for everyone” and stated one of its goals was to “level the playing field” among operating systems by providing a consistent web browsing experience across them. The Netscape web browser interface was identical on any computer. Netscape later experimented with prototypes of a web-based system which would enable users to access and edit their files anywhere across a network, no matter what computer or operating system they happened to be using.
These days we have a new metaphor for that. We call it the cloud.