Back in the early days, the internet was a much different creature than it is today. To most, it would be unrecognizable, primarily consisting of bulletin board systems with no multimedia aside from a few low-res inline images. These systems were disparate and had to be dialed into separately.
The internet changed drastically with the advent of the World Wide Web. All of those previously separate systems were connected, but the world needed a way to "browse" them—a "web browser" was in order. In April 1994, Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark founded the Mosaic Communications Corporation. Mosaic was the name of a software that allowed users to access different content on the web. Andreessen had worked on the project while he was with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois.
Clark, who had previously worked at Silicon Graphics, brought with him several of his co-workers to work on Mosaic. Likewise, Andreessen tapped several of his colleagues from the NCSA to work for the company. By October 1994, the team had released Mosaic Netscape 0.9. In December, they renamed the company Netscape Communications and launched version 1.0 of Netscape Navigator.
As true visionaries, Netscape founders understood that the web browser would become a revolutionary tool and set a crucial precedent. Navigator was made available for free to individual, academic and research users.
"By making Netscape available free to individuals for personal use, the company builds on the tradition of software products for the Internet being offered free of charge." read the 1994 press release.
"Netscape is the first Internet tool that lets the average user with a 14.4 kb modem work with the Internet interactively"
Commercial users were supposed to purchase licenses of the browser at $99 per user, which included warranty and customer support, but that didn't last long. Likewise, you could find boxed versions of Netscape in retail stores at some point selling for $40 per copy.
For all practical purposes, at the time Navigator was the only publicly available web browser, so it enjoyed a period of virtually zero competition.
On August 9, 1995, Netscape went public with its IPO selling at $28 per share. The stock was supposed to be offered at $14 per share, but it was decided to double the price at the last-minute. During the first day of trading, the stock rose to $75 per share, reaching a market cap of $3 billion, an incredible first-day gain. Netscape's IPO kickstarted widespread investment in internet companies that later created the dot-com bubble.
It was a magical time, home computers sales were just booming and if you were lucky enough, your PC would come equipped with a modem for dial-up Internet access. You would hear the scrambling sound of your phone line connecting you to the world. Launching Netscape and staring at the throbber animation while a single web page loaded.
However, unbeknownst to anyone, Microsoft had been working on a browser of its own. Just days after Netscape's initial public offering, it released Windows 95 along with Internet Explorer 1.0. The competition was fierce as the two companies duked it out over the next year, with Microsoft always one step behind.
That was until Internet Explorer 3.0 release on August 1996. Microsoft had finally caught up to Netscape in terms of browser technology. Slowly but surely, Redmond was stealing market share primarily through Internet Explorer pre-installations on every Windows system.
Netscape Navigator market share: 1994 - 2007
Netscape continued working on both the Navigator browser and Communicator even though the bundling and name changes kept confusing users. In early 1998, the company announced plans to release the Communicator source code, which prompted the formation of the Mozilla project, an open-source endeavor that would later become Firefox.
Netscape's browser development slowed after releasing its source code, but Microsoft didn't rest. By the end of 1999, Microsoft had won the majority of the market. This shift in browser preference marked the start of a long spiraling death for Netscape (and eventually Internet Explorer as well).
By the time Internet Explorer 5.0 hit, it was clear Microsoft had developed the superior browser. Websites were becoming more graphically intensive, internet speeds were faster, but broadband was still a few years away. The Netscape browser was buggier, slower, and more prone to crashes in comparison.
According to records of that time, Microsoft spent over $100 million every year developing IE in the late 1990s, with over 1000 people working on it.
By 1998, the former king of the internet was floundering. AOL, formerly known as America Online, saw potential in rescuing the failing browser and shelled out $4.2 billion in a November 1998 buyout. However, the opportunity was squandered.
Development on the Navigator/Communicator browser, which had now come to be called Netscape, was slow. Even with help from the advancements gained in the Mozilla project, AOL was unable to release Netscape 6 until 2000, putting it way behind in the browser wars. For two more years, the browser would struggle in its final death throes.
Time to Say Goodbye
In August 2002, Netscape 7 was released and that was the beginning of a long goodbye. The following year, AOL closed the Netscape division and laid off most of the staff. Development continued for a couple more years using advances in the Firefox source code, but nothing significant was released under the brand.
In 2005, AOL turned over development duties to an outside Canadian company called Mercurial Communications. Mercurial released "Netscape Browser 8" in May 2005. Several iterations occurred over the next two years, with version 8.1.3 being the last update Mercurial pushed out in April 2007.
Like the mother who just doesn't want to let her child run off to college without one last kiss goodbye, AOL picked up in-house development again. It rebranded the browser back to Netscape Navigator and launched version 9 in October 2007. AOL then continued support for only a few more months before it would finally let it go.
On February 20, 2008, the company pushed the very last iteration of Netscape Navigator (version 126.96.36.199). The browser was officially discontinued and with the aid of some tools you could migrate your data to Flock and Firefox for a while after that.
For the curious, Netscape Navigator 9 is still available on the web from various archives. However, keep in mind, this is not the Navigator of yore. It's more or less a rebranded Firefox with a Netscape theme. The only things that distinguish it from the browser it is based on is the "link pad," and mini browser found in the sidebar.
If you are more curious about the earlier builds and what it was like to browse the internet in the "old days," OldVersion.com maintains an archive of stable versions going all the way back to Netscape 1.0, but check compatibility before attempting to install anything that old.