How Netscape 4 Won the Browser War

Alex Tabarrok bravely, but mistakenly, tries to make the case that Microsoft’s leveraging of its desktop monopoly to monopolize the browser and other markets is a good thing.

He’s wrong on two points.

First, the less obvious one, which will explain why he’s wrong on the more obvious one.

Microsoft didn’t win the browser war

Oh, sure, odds are you go to the Internet by clicking on a blue “e” (for Enternet?) and don’t think once about it. But if the browser war is defined as who people design sites for, Internet Explorer is a distant finisher.

The winner of the browser war is Netscape 4. Not Netscape, certainly not Mozilla, not AOL, and definitely not Web Standards. Netscape 4 is the browser that was the most popular Netscape browser when IE essentially won the browser installation war by releasing Internet Explorer 6, well over three years ago. At that point, except for some rump action by the open-source version of Netscape and the Netscape parasite versions (6.0 through 7), innovation ceased in the browser market. Microsoft recently made it official, stating that they have no intention of releasing updates to Internet Explorer. For anything new, you’ll have to buy their next operating system, due in 2006 or later. Unless they release OS updates, you won’t see any changes in the behavior of this browser, and you won’t be able to download a newer version of it.

So, why do I make the claim that Netscape 4, a browser everybody regards as fairly crappy, actually won?

It’s the browser you can target and ensure your code looks good on every browser in use on the planet today. Bar none.

When clients come to me and say that they need to support older machines that can’t be updated and they don’t have a lot of time for development, I haul out Netscape 4 and start coding.

I could do it with IE 6, but IE 5 and 5.5 don’t support everything, and there are just enough Mozilla or Netscape users to make life difficult. But if it looks good in Netscape 4, odds are it will look good in every browser with just a little tweaking.

Sure, the standards fanatics will say that since IE 6 supports (*cough*some*cough*) Cascading Style Sheets and XHTML, I should use that and let the browsers degrade, but that’s not a realistic thing to tell a client on his old iBook running Mac IE 5.2.

Netscape 4 was released officially in June of 1997. That’s almost seven years ago. The rendering model it put forward then, quirks and all, is supported with only limited deviation by every browser currently available. It is more consistently supported than CSS 2 in modern browsers, which brings us to the second thing Alex is wrong about.

Microsoft Has Hurt the Market

While I’m sure that any market that is naturally going to be monopolized may better be monopolized by a company with a complimentary monopoly already, there’s no law that says the browser market was doomed to be monopolized. Indeed, the lack of 100% deployment of IE-only Web sites despite IE being preinstalled on a monopoly desktop operating system since the mid-90s demonstrates that it is likely not a market that would easily succumb to a monopoly, all else being equal. This is true whether or not Netscape ever thought it would be the monopolist instead of Microsoft.

Six months after releasing Netscape 4, Netscape announced that its browser releases would be free. Internet Explorer was free, and now just good enough for the price difference to matter. A desktop monopoly lets you do these kinds of things. This deprived Netscape of cash, and a retooling of its browser with more limited resources gave Microsoft the breathing room they needed to get a browser that was Good Enough to stave off people downloading something as large as a new Web browser to replace the one that it made hard to dislodge from the desktop–or indeed bullied makers who would have preferred to ship a PC with something else into toeing the Microsoft line.

So, innovation has essentially stopped–and because no one can afford the kind of penetration of the market necessary to compete against a monopolist, it is not likely to rekindle. Had Netscape and Microsoft (and Opera and Apple and other, lesser-known players at the time) kept up their pace of innovation, we’d see … X.

I don’t know what X is, and neither does Alex. X is also the next industry that will replace the high-tech jobs we’ve lost due to the bubble bursting. Alex doesn’t know what that is, either. I share his faith that it is coming, which is why I don’t jump on the anti-outsourcing bandwagon.

But by apologizing with ex-post-facto logic (it is so, therefore it must have been so no matter what) for the harmful effects of a monopolist leveraging a monopoly on one area to create a sub-optimal monopoly in another area (for an optimal monopoly, see Google–obviously Microsoft does), he does a disservice to the creativity of the Market.

The Market can do a lot better than that. Maybe the time saved in not adapting to moving targets since 1997 is worth it economically, but there is zero technical case to be made for it.

I don’t pretend to be an economist, so I can’t say what the likelihood that advances in the Web and browsers generally have cost us versus the gains of pseudo-standardization on Netscape 4, but I know there has to be an opportunity cost, and one to which Alex gave short shrift.

4 thoughts on “How Netscape 4 Won the Browser War

  1. Here, you’re talking to Alex, and people who use browsers, and people who administer anti-trust law, although many of the people in these groups are probably not listening.


  2. Oh yeah. I’m all about talking to people who aren’t listening. You should hear me pontificating in the shower. Although possibly there might be people listening. But the nice men in the white coats said not to worry about them.


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