Godwin’s law wins again

Matthew JC. Powell
2 January, 2008
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In 1990 a law student called Mike Godwin, who later became general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and is now the general counsel for the Wikimedia Foundation, formulated a law of online discussions. It states, quite simply: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler or Nazis approaches one". That is, the longer we argue, the more likely it is that someone is going to be compared to Hitler. Anyone who has hung around internet newsgroups, mailing lists and the like knows this to be true. A later addition to Godwin’s Law states that when the inevitable reference to Hitler arises, the discussion is over and whoever brought the Nazis into it "loses" the argument.

If only someone had explained Godwin’s Law to Steve Case.

You may need a bit of a history lesson here. Steve Case was the mercurial founder of America Online, later known as AOL. AOL was the dominant commercial computer network in the USA in the early 1990s, before the world wide web as we know it came to be. Once the internet became commercialised, AOL’s grip started to slip, and Case became increasingly determined to win back his company’s power, whatever it took. At much the same time, Marc Andreessen and some colleagues from the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications developed Mosaic, the very first web browser. Seeing its commerical potential, they left to form a company called Netscape, with Andreessen at the helm, to sell their version of the Mosaic browser, which they called Netscape Navigator.

Netscape Navigator very quickly came to dominate the web, and Netscape started talking about the web as an application platform independent of the desktop, making operating systems like Mac and Windows irrelevant. As you can imagine, this aroused the interest of certain individuals in Redmond Washington, who did not regard Windows as irrelevant. Microsoft developed its own web browser — Internet Explorer — and bundled it as part of Windows, installing it for free on every PC. At the time, Navigator cost money, so its market share slipped dramatically in the face of the free threat.

Thus was born an unlikely alliance. Steve Case of AOL approached Marc Andreessen of Netscape with the idea that the two companies could work together strategically to defeat Microsoft’s invasion of their turf. Had Microsoft stayed out of the web browser market, AOL and Netscape would have been sworn enemies — as it was, their common enemy overwhelmed their animosity for each other.

And how was their clandestine allegiance managed? Through coded emails, in which Case was "Roosevelt" and Andreessen was "Stalin" while Bill Gates and Microsoft were — you guessed it — "Hitler". In Microsoft’s anti-trust trial in 1998, Andreessen testified that he had wanted to be "Churchill" but Case wouldn’t let him because he felt that the Roosevelt/Stalin alliance was a better analogy for their own.

Fast forward a few years. AOL ended up buying Netscape outright, then AOL merged with media giant Time Warner before sacking Case. Andreessen left to start up some other companies, Netscape’s source code was opened up into the Mozilla project (the name is a reference to the product’s origins as Mosaic) and the result was Firefox — the first real threat to the dominance of Internet Explorer.

Which brings us to New Year’s Eve 2007, and Time Warner’s announcement that its AOL division will not develop or support Netscape Navigator beyond the first of February 2008. You’ll still be able to download it if you want to, but there won’t be any updates to fix security flaws so you’d be insane to do so. AOL, which owned the online marketplace before the web came along, and Netscape, which owned the web afterwards, are both gone from the market — or will be very soon. Case and Andreessen, once Microsoft’s greatest nemeses, are fodder for "Where Are They Now" — if only anyone cared.

If only they hadn’t mentioned Hitler.

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