Netscape had big plans for its 3.0 browser. It was seen as a “universal client” to help expand what HTML could do. But Netscape was also looking to broaden its product offering with a suite of tools it called Netscape Communicator, which it began pitching to developers later in 1996. The ultimate goal was to pioneer a new type of software product: “network-centric applications.”
Netscape ONE & The Emergence of Web Apps
There was almost something Microsoftian about Netscape’s ambition at this point. On 1 August, 1996, Marc Andreessen wrote in his online column about a new product called Netscape ONE:
“This week Netscape and 50 other vendors introduced Netscape ONE, the open network environment. Netscape ONE provides a rich set of tools and functionality to create a new generation of software: network-centric applications.”
In the Netscape ONE white paper, Netscape attempts to re-frame HTML from a simple document markup language to “a universal container for an application.” The boundaries were starting to be pushed regarding the purpose of a web page — and the functionality it could offer. A web page wasn’t just for presenting information anymore, Netscape was saying. It was now also a “container” for business applications.
If HTML had become a universal container, Netscape Navigator was now “the universal client for publishing, navigation, collaboration, and application access.”
Indeed, Navigator 3.0 was being pitched as a key tool in the expansion of HTML:
“Today, Netscape Navigator 3.0 continues to expand the capabilities of HTML with new features such as borderless frames, fonts, and better table support to further increase the power of HTML-based client interfaces.”
The shift to what Netscape called “HTML applications” is made explicit in the ONE paper with statements like this:
“Similar to the way in which OS-specific resource files describe interfaces using dialogs, fields, buttons, and so on, HTML is developing into a platform-independent resource definition language to specify interfaces and assemble applications from components.”
Netscape Developers Conference
In October 1996, in New York City, Netscape held its second Internet Developer Conference (the first was in March), to talk up Netscape ONE among other things. A lot of the focus was on “enterprise developers,” who were busy building intranets for companies. Marc Andreessen set the scene in his keynote:
“We think there’s a really fundamental shift underway, due to the internet and due to intranets, that’s going to drive a lot of technological change and a lot of business opportunity for all of us, in the months and years ahead. The cornerstone of this is the fact that HTML — which grew up as the rich language, document format of the web — is now expanding way beyond browsing. It’s now serving as a basis for web-based email, also groupware, and also full-fledged business applications.”
The same week that Netscape held its second developer conference, the company also announced its next major product: Netscape Communicator, scheduled for release in 1997. Communicator would incorporate version 4 of Netscape’s flagship browser, Navigator, and add other office products. Essentially, it was a re-branding of Netscape’s core product offering — from Netscape Navigator to Netscape Communicator. This reflected the expansion of web functionality that Andreessen referenced in his keynote, from documents (web pages) to web applications and corporate networking features like groupware.
He listed five new components, all of which we can view a quarter century later as early versions of web products we now use daily — for example, via Google’s online office suite. First Andreessen mentioned email in a browser (Gmail today), groupware called Netscape Collabra (Google Groups), conferencing software “for real-time audio and data conferencing over intranet” (Google Meet), an online calendar (take a guess…), and “an easy-to-use HTML editing tool called Netscape Composer” (Google Docs is the closest equivalent now).
Andreessen then listed a raft of server-side products that Netscape was also announcing, to complement Netscape Communicator. This is where Netscape hoped to make money, as it competed with Microsoft on the client-side with their respective free web browsers.
(Cue laughter from the crowd at Andreessen’s emphasis of the word ‘legacy’)
“We still wouldn’t actually suggest that you use them,” Andreessen ad-libbed, clearly referring to the two Microsoft technologies he’d mentioned (OLE and ActiveX).
“The Communicator itself exposes lots of APIs and protocols,” he continued a bit later in the keynote, before listing the various ways that Java developers could create applications for Communicator.
“You can write to the core Java APIs directly, you can also write to the Internet Foundation Classes [and] very quickly piece together Java applications. These IFCs provide Java class libraries that serve as […] prefabricated building blocks for great apps.”
IFCs was a graphics library for Java, which Netscape developed and released in December 1996.
Andreessen finished his keynote by summarizing the state of Netscape from a development perspective.
One example Andreessen cited of the progress in web development that Netscape was enabling was “absolute positioning” of components on a web page. He explained that this was “a brand new capability […] which lets any object in an HTML page — a Java applet, a plug-in, an HTML element, whatever — be positioned anywhere on the screen.” The functionality gave developers “the same degree of control that you’d normally associate with CD-ROM multimedia,” he added.
Inching Towards Web Standards
As this post has shown, 1996 was an ambitious, productive year for Netscape and one of great progress for web development in general. As Marc Andreessen pointed out, browser technology in 1996 had expanded beyond the initial document-focused delivery of websites over 1994 and 1995. In 1996, we began to see web applications emerge — or at least the foundations being set.