August 1996: Netscape Creates Navio to Compete with Microsoft

by Marius Marinescu / 19 August

Netscape Communications Corp has created Navio Communications Inc. subsidiary to develop internet software for the consumer market – anything from cars to games consoles – aimed at non-PC users, but based on stripped-down versions of its Navigator web browser software. “The aim is to go where the PC can’t and is not likely to go”, said Netscape at that time. And where the PC can’t and won’t go, Netscape’s obviously hoped Microsoft Corp. can’t either and won’t try to follow.

Navio signed agreements with IBM Corp., Oracle Corp., Nintendo Co. Ltd., Sony Corp., Sega Enterprises Ltd. and NEC Corp. The last four were clearly masters at the consumer market place, while IBM and Oracle were not such obvious participants. As to the type of products, details were sketchy, with Navio insisting it was just a company announcement. None of the partners was even present.

 

Navio’s chief executive, Wei Yen, identified three areas in which the products – due sometime in 1997 – will be used. The first was television-centric environments, such as game consoles, set-top boxes, and Digital Video Disk (DVD) systems. The second was communications devices, including Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), cellular and other telephones. Yen said this category may subsume into one device before long (you got to give credit to that vision as it was fulfilled 11 years later in 2007 by Apple with the first iPhone). And lastly, the information terminal, by which Yen meant network computers, kiosks and other home appliances. He said the first batch of all three categories of products was likely to release around the same time in 1997.

 

The Navio software was based on Navigator technology and ran on devices with embedded, real-time operating systems or no operating systems at all, supporting all the standards that Navigator supported. Navio software was modular and dynamically downloadable. Netscape was readying a modular version of Galileo, the next version of Navigator. The full version was due at the end of the year, with the modular version early next year. The Navio modular software was at least connected with the modular Navigator work, according to the company. In other words, if a specific Navigator module was already there, it won’t be re-written for Navio. The plan was for the Navio browsers to reformat input for televisions and devices such as phones that only have space for a few lines of text and the Navigator team to provide the knowledge as far as Java, security and objects. The whole software stack will be extensible via plug-ins.

 

Marc Andreessen, Netscape’s co-founder and chief technology officer reckoned the market for the Navio software was at least 500 million users in five years’ time. If all the PCs – about 240 million in 1996 – phones, consoles, pagers, cars, televisions and practically everything else that moved and everything that didn’t were included, then that number was clearly conservative, and pretty meaningless. But Netscape was fast out of the blocks in signing up all the games console companies that mattered, together with IBM and Oracle, as well as some others that it declined to talk about, even though deals were not thought to be exclusive. Yen claimed, at the time, that internet will be as important as electricity to consumer devices in the next century, and Andreessen predicted an internet device on every desk and in every backpack, eventually (again, credit to that foresight). Andreessen said because of the extra advertising opportunities, the potential for giving consumer internet devices away for free was even greater than with cellular phones, which were already given away in many markets, and were also ideal internet devices. He wondered whether some sort of consumer internet access device might be bundled on the front of a magazine, or even come with a pizza box.

 

Oracle bought the majority stake in Navio in 1997. The company got assimilated into the huge Oracle machine and their dream of developing a pervasive ecosystem of inexpensive internet connected devices that will be based on their Navio Browser/OS never took flight. They never released a product, device, browser, operating system or otherwise, and they never published a roadmap for their supposed products and third-party integrations.

 

Their unfulfilled dream is called nowadays IoT 🙂