Hard News by Russell Brown


They don't make 'em like they used to

Netscape the browser is finally dead. End of line. Not that it makes any real difference -- visits with all versions of Netscape amounted to 0.3% of accesses on Public Address this month -- but the news did cause me to reminisce.

I remember Netscape's arrival. Word got about (well, my buddy Richard Ram told me) in late 1994 that a new, much faster version of the NCSA Mosaic graphical web browser was on the way. It duly arrived. You could download it (good lord, the beta was nearly a whole megabyte!). For free!

Everything changed. Microsoft, which had planned to own everything via the Microsoft Network, built in to Windows 95, had to start making stuff up, quickly. It shoved a barely functional browser called Internet Explorer into the new OS, declaring that it would be henceforth looking to "embrace and extend" the internet. Ya, rly.

There followed a demonstration of the power of the free. Netscape Corporation's browser (only free to academic and non-profit users, but no one really believed that) shot to more than 90% market share of the emerging web. That thrilling IPO launched the tech boom. Telecom's new ISP, Xtra, trumpeted its deal with Netscape -- this was to be middle New Zealand's way to the brave new world.

It didn't work out that way. Bill Gates famously ordered that the ship be turned around, and Microsoft started to compete with its own, free browser; finding ways to make you use it. We were in the Browser Wars. Most weeks, you could download some mad-headed broke-ass point release with a barely functional new feature or three. Netscape's code turned into a mess.

I still have a personal soft spot for Netscape Navigator 3, the last major version before the bloat began (Netscape 4 was nearly twice the size and suffering). I even downloaded 3.04, from the evolt archive, just for old times' sake. Ironically, it looks like my best chance of getting it to run now is to install an old 68k Mac emulator on the kids' PC …

But there are screenshots of the major early browsers and -- remarkably -- some browser emulators (they work fitfully, but if you enter the whole URL the page text should load). I just read my blog in Netscape 1.0! Woot!

(It seems I'm not the only one. Our logs show 31 file hits from Netscape .06 for this month. Awesome.)

Now, Marc Andreessen isn't famous any more, and Netscape has been on death watch for years. But the whole thing had a second summer: the move to open-source the browser in 1998 was desperate and, it seemed, doomed. Yet, eventually, it bequeathed Firefox. (I explained the background here, in a Listener column about Ben Goodger and his role in Firefox's creation). I don't use Firefox much -- yes, it's flexible, but Safari 3.0 is faster and funkier and I'm still just an Apple fanboy.

Meanwhile, Paul Reynolds got in touch with a few more library links. He reminded me about Papers Past, a (mostly) searchable archive of vintage New Zealand newspapers and periodicals, complete up to the early 20th century. It's really fun.

There's also the Christchurch City Libraries blog (and the library's website).

Paul comments:

The Library TechNZ guys are indeed interesting.

I was talking to a couple of them last week in the National Library. They have a bit of in house sandpit running which is trialling a whole bunch of ways to open up the National Library Image databases, as well as some of the new digitisation projects , including the Maori Affairs/land agent Donald McLean.

They have been playing with PicLens, the Firefox plugin

The current results are just brilliant, especially as they put on screen some of the energy that is bubbling away in there around open access APIs etc ..

Indeed. PicLens is very cool. Looking forward to those APIs too …

And, finally, best of luck to reader Clare Tanner of Wellington, with the launch of the ambitious community e-book site BookHabit.

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