The Netscape Story
For PC software, there�s a myth that design is unimportant because time-to-market is all that matters. Netscape�s demise is a story worth pondering in this respect.; Thee original NCSA Mosaic team at the University of Illinois built the first widely used browser, but they did a quick and dirty job. They founded Netscape, and between April and December 1994 built Navigator 1.0. It ran on 3 platforms, and soon became the dominant browser on Windows, Unix and Mac. Microsoft began developing Internet Explorer 1.0 in October 1994, and shipped it with Windows 95 in August 1995.
In Netscape�s rapid growth period, from 1995 to 1997, the developers worked hard to ship new products with new features, and gave little time to design. Most companies in the shrink-wrap software business (still) believe that design can be postponed: that once you have market share and a compelling feature set, you can �refactor� the code and obtain the benefits of clean design. Netscape was no exception, and its engineers were probably more talented than many.
Meanwhile, Microsoft had realized the need to build on solid designs. It built NT from scratch, and restructured the Office suite to use shared components. It did hurry to market with IE to catch up with Netscape, but then it took time to restructure IE 3.0. This restructuring of IE is now seen within Microsoft as the key decision that helped them close the gap with Netscape.
Netscape�s development just grew and grew. By Communicator 4.0, there were 120 developers (from 10 initially) and 3 million lines of code (up a factor of 30). Michael Toy, release manager, said: �We�re in a really bad situation � We should have stopped shipping this code a year ago.
It�s dead� This is like the rude awakening� We�re paying the price for going fast.�
Interestingly, the argument for modular design within Netscape in 1997 came from a desire to go back to developing in small teams. Without clean and simple interfaces, it�s impossible to divide up the work into parts that are independent of one another.
Netscape set aside 2 months to re-architect the browser, but it wasn�t long enough. So they decided to start again from scratch, with Communicator 6.0. But 6.0 was never completed, and its developers were reassigned to 4.0. The 5.0 version, Mozilla, was
made available as open source, but that didn�t help: nobody wanted to work on spaghetti code.
In the end, Microsoft won the browser war, and AOL acquired Netscape. Of course this is not the entire story of how Microsoft�s browser came to dominate Netscape�s. Microsoft�s business practices didn�t help Netscape. And platform independence was a big issue right from the start; Navigator ran on Windows, Mac and Unix from version 1.0, and Netscape worked hard to maintain as much platform independence in their code as possible. They even planned to go to a pure Java version (�Javagator�), and built a
lot of their own Java tools (because Sun�s tools weren�t ready). But in 1998 they gave up.Still, Communicator 4.0 contains about 1.2 million lines of Java.
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