What Firefox Can Learn From Netscape Navigator

Yeah, I promised not to talk about Chrome for awhile but I’ll ask for a Chrome exemption to look at how Firefox can learn from the mistakes Netscape made in the late-1990s when it fumbled and stumbled and, eventually, lost its dominance of the fledgling browser market to Internet Explorer.

This stems from comments made yesterday by Marc Andreessen, who co-founded Netscape, about Chrome (He likes it but you wouldn’t expect him to say otherwise publicly, would you.)

1. Mozilla must not get complacent. For whatever reason, Netscape thought its first-mover advantage and status as an investor darling would be enough to maintain and increase consumer loyalty. But Netscape got lazy and, sadly, Navigator got worse at a time when it needed to get much better to compete with Internet Explorer.

2. Mozilla needs to relish and nurture its role as the scrappy underdog. People liked Netscape because it was a new player with a valuable product willing to get head-to-head with Microsoft. At the same time, however, Netscape surrendered its scrappy startup status. \

The beginning of the end may have been the IPO, which turned many of its employees into millionaires. Then, Netscape went corporate. I remember going to a media event to meet Andreessen, and was shocked to see him wearing a ultra-corporate dark suit and tie. Now, you could tell he was uncomfortable but he was playing the role he thought he needed to play because Netscape was becoming a big company.

3. Firefox needs to keep getting better and better. Firefox 2.0 was good but Firefox 3.0 is even better, and there are encouraging signs that Mozilla has some interesting projects (e.g. Ubiquity) happening that will push the browser envelope.

4. Mozilla must stay focused. Netscape suffered because it got away from its browser roots into other products. Part of it was economic necessity because the online advertising market had yet to really emerge so Netscape needed a way to generate revenue when it became apparent it wouldn’t be able to sell Navigator, even to corporations.

With a highly-lucrative business (nearly $50-million in profits in 2006), Mozilla has enough financial muscle to do pretty much whatever it wants – along with an enthusiastic developer community to support its projects.

While Mozilla has shown it’s willing to explore new directions, it would be a mistake if it ventured off into areas that didn’t align with its browser (Firefox) and e-mail (Thunderbird) roots. In fact, you could make an argument that Thunderbird could be a distraction, although Thunderbird doesn’t appear to be getting much love from Mozilla.

Update: Speaking of Firefox making improvements, it has released version 3.1 alpha 2, which includes support for HTML 5.

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  • Martyr2

    I was going to put up an argument until you hit point 3 and 4 because point 3 and 4 are really what knocked Netscape out. Netscape’s products just got worse and worse instead of better and that is because of point 4… they branched out into too many other products.

    It goes back to software development rule number 1… design for one thing and do it well. Netscape browser was awesome, but as soon as they went to communicator it went down hill really fast. I remember upgrading from the browser once to communicator and was like “What is with all this other crap?” Then it would crash again and again. I tried to stick with it through the next upgrade or two, but it just got worse.

    IE came on the scene very simple and straight forward. Much like Chrome is doing now. It had redesigned the browser from the ground up, like Chrome is also doing.

    But the mix of Netscape losing focus and their quality going down (plus the huge problem of Microsoft cheating by tying their browser to their OS which by the time the government got to ruling on it it was too late) is what ultimately lead to Netscape losing the war.

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