3 comments on “Milestone: AOL completes acquisition of Netscape”

  1. Justin wrote on

    Jud Valeski was there and posted his story here: http://one.valeski.org/2013/04/my-15-yr-anniversary-with-mozilla.html

  2. dboswell wrote on

    Jamie Zawinski wrote about the news of the merger at the time at


    Includes the quote: “The Mozilla code is out there, and it cannot be recalled. It has been distributed under an open source license, and nobody can ever take that away from you. Ever.”

  3. Mike Macgirvin wrote on

    Netscape Days

    It was October, 1995. About 6 weeks earlier Netscape Communications Corporation had pulled off the most successful IPO in history. I was at 501 E. Middlefield Road being interviewed for a job at Netscape.

    How did I come to this decision? I was working at a cushy job at Stanford; with more vacation time than I could possibly take in each years’ time. But I had taken time off during the last year to write a little email program called “ML”. It was wildly successful amongst Unix users and quickly gained a cult following – especially in Europe because I had taken pains to ensure that the text could be easily localized. I could see the future, and I started thinking about things like “market share” and “global products”. Neither of these things I could do alone. I was drained from writing and supporting the entire “product” myself. And I was giving it away. The only way I could live my dreams was to join forces with somebody with a common objective – and of course capital.

    A week or two earlier Netscape announced that it was buying another little Mountain View startup called Collabra. The folks from Collabra, I was convinced – could see that the future lay in an obscure messaging protocol called “IMAP” with which I was one of the world’s leading developers at the time, and that there was no way I could compete with whatever they brought to the table. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

    Netscape at the time had just issued preview releases of “Netscape 2”. This was powerful stuff. They not only had an interface to http, but also ftp, gopher, nntp, pop3 and every other major internet protocol in one easy to use package. They had internet security with ssl – the entire basis for e-commerce, and a cross-platform development language called “java” which they licensed from Sun. They had just added “frames” which allowed a cross-platform developer to simulate an entire windowing system with write-once code. This was a holy grail of software developers. You no longer needed to write special case software for every obscure machine in existence. Even on Unix – my platform of choice; there were seven or eight major variants and they all required special case code to work. Windows 3.1 code didn’t work with NT or the up and coming Windows 95. And nothing that even almost worked anywhere else worked on the Macintosh or anything IBM labs came up with. Netscape had a solution (though admittedly they never did quite get it completely right – this was the hardest of problems). Still working on the hardest of problems was what I wanted to do.

    So here I am at a job interview. I decided that due to the company I was applying for that I should dress “Silicon Valley formal”. This meant a tie with blue jeans. I chose a Rick Griffin “Jimi-Hendrix at the Fillmore” tie to go with my blue jeans and a casual shirt. Boy was I overdressed… My first interview was with Rob McCool, who was the lead developer for the Netscape Enterprise (web) server. He walked into the room in cutoffs and a ragged t-shirt – no shoes. Looked like he hadn’t slept or showered in weeks. In retrospect, he probably hadn’t.

    After an entire day of interviews, I was struck by one common theme. Netscape fully intended to wage direct war on Microsoft, the largest and most powerful corporation in American history. Was I disturbed by this? Absolutely. Would I do anything in my power as a mortal human to help with the effort? Of course. I had no love of Microsoft, and in fact a deep hatred after watching time and time again as they squashed any possible competition to their throne. In the software industry in Silicon Valley, Microsoft has few friends. Everybody you work with once developed a product that Microsoft basically stole and made their own and either tried or succeeded in putting out of business. Still I was troubled that Netscape was so brazen in their longings. I knew this could only lead to open war.

    I was eventually hired – the first person in the new “Messaging Server” division. After the first week, in which the Collabra folks came on board, and the first project review for Marc Andreessen, I learned what I was up against. One guy – against Microsoft Exchange, which had been in development for five years by hundreds of programmers in Redmond, Washington. Of course they threatened to embrace and extend IMAP and whatever other protocols they needed to capture this market and make it their own. It was a humbling experience to say the least. Rick Shell, one of my bosses, went so far as to say “If we can’t be assured of dominating this market, why are we even here?” I knew the answer. If we weren’t willing to provide a market solution which involved *all* the latest technologies, we had already lost the war. But to answer meant that I knew there would actually be a war. I knew that, but didn’t answer. I wrote a complete IMAP implementation for the Netscape Mail Server product in about 6 weeks, borrowing what I could from open-source products and writing hundreds of pages of code to fill in the gaps. Sleep was irrelevant, this was war and I was a soldier. We bought the base product from a small company in Santa Barbara. It was a generic mail server which had web access for configuration. That matched our corporate strategy. Their product sucked, but it got us into the game. That company is now OpenWave, one of the giants in the wireless world. We licensed it and delivered it as Netscape product within the first six weeks of my arrival. You have no idea what went on to make this happen. A company invents a complete product line out of thin air and ships it within six weeks. The first major revision (with vastly improved functionality) comes a few weeks afterward. Welcome to Netscape time. You may notice a common thread in all my rantings – six weeks is about all it takes for the world to change completely.

    Over the next few years, we had the war, and we basically lost. How do you compete with infinitely deep pockets and eventually “free”? It was only about six weeks after I hired on that a general announcement was made that we had struck a big marketing deal with AOL. A day later we had an “all hands” meeting where it was revealed that AOL double-crossed us and were now (only a day later) siding with the evil empire, all for a shot at the opening screen. I could not blame them for that choice, but thought again at my new employer’s stated mission and this wasn’t fun. The following “all hands” confirmed my worst fears. It was December 1995, Pearl Harbor day, and Microsoft declared open war on Netscape. Only a couple of months had passed since I left the relative comfort of Stanford, but the entire world had changed. Microsoft had 100 times as many programmers as we had, and they didn’t mobilize just one division to eliminate the threat we potentially posed to the Windows desktop platform, but they mobilized the entire company to get rid of us from the face of the earth, plain and simple. Not only had I forsook safety for a startup world, but I had chosen to be a target for the largest corporation on earth. IMAP and Internet messaging servers were absolutely a top priority of post pearl harbor Microsoft – and of course the infamous browser. Eventually we grew to a division of somewhere on the order of a hundred people, all working furiously to survive. The browser team was a bit larger, but not big enough to keep up with the entire Microsoft juggernaut.

    So then fast forward to 1998. The very folks that double crossed us in 1995 (AOL) bought the remains of our quickly dying company. It was the deal of a lifetime, but a deal that they helped sweeten through subterfuge. My division became a part of iPlanet – the Sun/Netscape alliance. In reality, AOL didn’t have a clue what to do with server software, it wasn’t something they had much interest or experience with. So they pretty much gave our product division to Sun. In the several months that followed, most everybody left. My group went down to about six Netscape people before I finally threw in the towel and joined AOL proper. It wasn’t that Sun was awful to work for, though there was obviously a bit of culture clash. It was that we had been left swinging in the wind; left to die by our parent company. The Netscape leaders were gone. The AOL leaders weren’t to be heard from (at least at iPlanet). There were no leaders.

    The big question now is “Where did all these people go?” Was Netscape just a freak of nature? I’m happy to report that those folks who made a difference are still changing the world, though some of their efforts won’t be visible for years. A few like me decided to invest their effort in AOL technology, which could benefit immediately from the lessons we learned the hard way. Many are involved in efforts which won’t see the light of day for years to come. Netscape is still here, today. Not as a company, but as a brand name. We still are creating web browsers that have a potential for changing the world. We still are educating iPlanet as to how servers should work. And those that have left are changing the world in completely different ways. Voice web access is one of them. Wireless web access is another. The story isn’t over. This is only the beginning.

    Update: I was laid off from AOL/Time-Warner on August 23, 2001 during a routine cutback. By this time it had become obvious that I refused to bow to my new masters, so they naturally let me go. I understood the AOL culture but maintained an existence at the periphery. Of course this was unsustainable. But I’m now happily retired from corporate life at 45. Could be worse. Whether or not this situation is sustainable will have to be seen. A bit of frugality and good planning with investments can carry me the rest of my life. If not, I’ve got time to choose my next path; which is the greatest of all gifts one can ever hope to get from life. I love the adrenalin rush of being in the middle of something changing the world. Would I jump in again? Absolutely. But next time it’ll be purely for the rush.