Monthly Archives: April 2010

Fun With Netscape 1.0

Spring is in the air and with that comes Spring cleaning. For the computer geeks among us this is also the time we clean off hard drives, go through old disks, etc.

I decided to go through some old CD’s and Zip disks I had stashed away and came across some old-school stuff, including this gem:

Welcome to Netscape
Welcome to Netscape

That there is the “Welcome” screen from version 1 (actually 1.1) of Netscape Navigator. Sir Tim Berners-Lee may have invented the World Wide Web, but Netscape Navigator is pretty much the browser that changed the world. I know that sounds like a really bold statement, but it is the truth. This browser almost launched the “new economy” by itself.

The highly successful IPO of Netscape Communications led to a huge influx of capital and creation of tens of millions of jobs in a virtual gold rush with companies trying to out-innovate each other for the next big thing. 16 years later and trillions of dollars of economic activity later it is almost just a footnote in the history books now but Netscape Communications deserves full credit for launching the New Media revolution.

Without getting into a whole history lesson, Mosaic Communications (which went on to become Netscape Communications, then gobbled up by AOL in 1998) had the first successful commercial web browser, Netscape Navigator, which was based off of NCSA Mosaic, a project developed by students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champain, among them Marc Andreesen who co-founded Netscape with SGI co-founder Jim Clark.

Finding the program for this browser was a real treat for me. As someone who got my start in technology at the dawn of the dotcom era, it really brought me back to the exciting beginnings of the web. It brought me back to the days of hacking HTML trying to make shit work, the days of worrying about the size of gif files and making sure they do not take more than a few minutes to download on our 14.4 baud modems. The days of having to actually submit your site to Yahoo in hopes they would include it in their directory.

Looking back I feel privileged to have been a part of this – working in the industry when it was just taking it’s first baby steps. Sometimes looking back I still can’t believe how far things have come and how fast. Now we do full-blown video, animation, games etc over the web on cell phones and other portable devices at speeds that are mind boggling.

So back to the browser – I went to run it (this version did not have an installer – it was a self-contained single executable) but it did not want to run on Windows 7 64-bit. Tried setting compatibility modes etc and still could not get it to run.

Copied it to a Vista 32-bit machine and that did the trick.

Header Failure
HTTP header errors when visitiong Yahoo

So I run the program and first thing you see is that the interface has a lot of the same basic features as they do now. You have the toolbar with forward and back buttons, home, stop etc. At the bottom you have the progress bar which would also show you the URL of a link you mouse over. About the only thing this version did not have in the interface that is standard now is the URL bar where you can type in a URL to visit. To visit a URL you had to go to the file menu and select open location.

First site I tried since it was one of the oldest was Yahoo.com but it did not work. I got the error above which looks like it is simply a case of an old browser not supporting the needed HTTP header.

I found that trying most sites it simply did not work. If I did not get that error I got other errors about supported character sets (this browser did not support UTF-8 or other unicode formats) or the browser simply did not have a handler for a given file type.

So failing that, I went on to play with the navigation buttons Net Search and Net Directory.

These options also brought up some neat old-school web stuff.

Netscape Search Engine Options
Netscape's selection of search engines.

First button I tried was Net Search which brought up a page with links and descriptions of the few web sites one could use to search the web at the time.

This is really amazing because not only is this pre-Google, but it is pre-Yahoo as well. At this point in history Yahoo was a hierarchical directory of sites and Google was still a couple years away.

At this point in time there were really just a handful of options for searching the web – among them AltaVista, Lycos, and WebCrawler.

All three of these domain names still seem to work but none of them are their original owners anymore and for the most part have changed drastically where one could say they are simply just the the same names and that is about it.

In this screenshot one thing that I noticed was this list pre-dated Lycos even being a commercial entity. The URL on the bottom when I moused over the link shows it’s original URL from when it was a still a research project at Carnegie Mellon University.

Netscape Navigator Web Directories
Web directories in Netscape Navigator.

Next on my little journey down memory lane was the Net Directory button. Interesting how we used to delineate between the two methods of finding sites – “search” and “directory.” I think these days due to the sheer volume of content on the web and the pace of change, hierarchical directories of sites are all but gone other than perhaps DMOZ.

Like the Net Search button, Net Directory brought up a page with some links to directories of sites, most notable among them being Yahoo.

This page REALLY shows how young (and small) the web was compared to now. When I moused over the link for Yahoo it shows their original URL before co-founders David Filo and Jerry Yang incorporated Yahoo as a business – akebono.stanford.edu/yahoo – where you could browse through the directory of 13,000 pages.

Contrast those 13,000 pages to now – even a simple Google search with the keyword “USA” returns 741,000,000 pages. The exponential increase in availability of information online is almost hard to grasp.

–Jon