Musings of an Internet Marketing Consultant
Musings of an Internet Marketing Consultant

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Commercialization of Internet Web browsers: the Prologue

Both Mark Evans and Alec Saunders have been making posts about the early days of Microsoft Internet Explorer. Mark wonders where the browser world would be if IE never happened; Alec comes from the viewpoint of a former IE Product Manager: browsers are a feature and not a product.

To add some pre-history from someone who was there: Mark Andreesson and some of his grad school colleagues had developed the Mosaic Web browser at the University of Illinois Champagne-Urbana ("UICU"). UICU then went out and sought licensees; Quarterdeck Corporation (of DESQview and QEMM fame) was the first licensee, signing an agreement with UICU in February or March of 1994. Then Marc went off with Jim Clark to form Mosaic Communications in early April 1994 (I can still visualize seeing the WSJ article announcing their startup).

UICU realized they may have something that could be a royalty generator and signed a deal that resulted in the creation of Spyglass as a commercial entity which received the worldwide rights to license Mosaic on behalf of UICU. In the summer of 1994 Quarterdeck went through a restructuring (in which I was personally involved on the sales and marketing side); their engineers decided to build a web browser from scratch even though they had licensed rights to the UICU Mosaic code; these rights at the UICU end had been transferred to Spyglass.

However, since QEMM was so highly pirated, Quarterdeck was seized with a software piracy "protectionist" mentality such that they missed the iterative “sharing” culture of the Internet. Meanwhile Marc and his colleagues developed their Netscape product from scratch (they never had a UICU/Spyglass license) and made their beta builds available on the Internet for testing and feedback starting in September 1994. (Clark et al were forced to change their company name from Mosaic Communications to something else - Netscape - as a result of a potential lawsuit by Spyglass who felt they owned the Mosaic name.) By the time Netscape launched an official release version in the spring of 1995, they had a very large, worldwide user base.

Quarterdeck released its product in May of '95 but never got market share or traction; the world had already gone Netscape as the default browser. Never was sure how much real revenue Netscape was generating in its initial post-release days but, as Alec has mentioned, it certainly "sold" as a stock on Wall Street.

Another recollection: At Quarterdeck we ended up re-negotiating the royalties, initially set at $5.00 per license with UICU, down to $0.50 per license with Spyglass. Eventually Microsoft came along, recognized a browser was a feature, not a product, and went on to embed IE within Windows. Zap goes any revenue model. So to put a conclusion to Mark's question about where the world would be without IE -- any browser product would have been a component of a larger offering -- either as an infrastructure application or in a developer toolkit.

Quarterdeck was eventually sold to Symantec in 1998 as Symantec needed a Windows Uninstaller to avoid a copyright lawsuit on another Uninstaller product they had -- Quarterdeck had CleanSweep. If I recall correctly, shareholders got $0.65 a share for a stock that had traded as high as $39 in late 1995.

One final note: one feature of the Quarterdeck browser has never made it to Internet Explorer to date - an ability to open multiple web pages in windows within a single "master" browser window. Was a great feature that has only over the past year gained widespread popularity, first in Firefox and potentially in MSIE 7.0: now it's called "Tabs".

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