The Sun Sets on Netscape

For many of us, Netscape represents a real turning point in Internet history. It fired up a massive shift of the Internet's move into the mainstream, but much like other iconic products that symbolized major technological shifts -- think maybe the Commodore 64, Sony's Betamax, or Pong -- Netscape is part of the past, and its fate is now sealed.

Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) AOL has decided to, in effect, kill the Netscape browser by ending its support of the product. AOL purchased Netscape after its heyday -- and its epic battle with Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) -- was over. AOL's decision is hardly surprising, given its shift to advertising-driven business, as exemplified by the relocation of its headquarters to New York and the subsequent job cuts.

Sad as this news is, it's not the end of the World Wide Web as we know it. Microsoft's Internet Explorer may have the lion's share of the browser market, but there are still plenty of options. Mozilla's Firefox, an open-source browser that's actually based on Netscape, has been hounding Microsoft for years now and currently holds a 16% market share. Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) has its own browser: Safari. And, of course, there's Opera, which recently triggered a major deja vu of the Netscape-vs.-IE days, when it filed an antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft in Europe.

Netscape has less than 1% of the browser market, so it seems obvious that despite the brand's legendary history, we haven't found a reason to actually use Netscape for a long time.

Of course, maybe having Netscape left to AOL's tender mercies was always questionable. AOL was yet another iconic brand in the Web's early days, but it failed to evolve along with increasingly sophisticated Internet users. That reality makes it all the easier to be skeptical about the company's newest plans. Perhaps Netscape's fate should give AOL a shudder about its own mortality, although there is the argument that its ability to focus on its new strategy is essential right now, and Netscape isn't part of that vision.

At any rate, Netscape is gone, but not forgotten, and its tale offers many lessons for investors. Hot IPOs such as Netscape's may make money in the short term, and even make history over the long haul, but the mighty innovators can stumble. Sustainable competitive advantage is key for companies that want to do more than get into history books, and investors must tread carefully.  

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