Although Netscape paved the way for Mozilla's Firefox, the Netscape browser itself was already on its way out in 2001 and has now all but disappeared, with official support ending in March 2008.
I began my experiment by trying to track down IE6 and Netscape 6 - specifically Netscape 6.1, which was based on early code from the Mozilla project and also released in August 2001. Acquiring both browsers was a bit more difficult than I expected, although getting old versions of Netscape is easy enough. They're all available in the Netscape Archive.
But after firing up a Windows XP virtual machine on my Windows 7 desktop, I realized I was using a version of IE6 that was finalized in 2008, when Windows XP Service Pack 3 was released. Microsoft, naturally, makes it difficult to downgrade. In order to get the oldest, most awful version of IE6, I had to locate an original, 2001 copy of Windows XP that lacked any patches and service pack updates.
With those minor details out of the way, I was able to run the 2001 versions of IE6 and Netscape 6.1 on the Windows XP operating system, inside a virtual machine created with Oracle's VirtualBox. Here's what I learned.
IE6 beat Netscape for a reason
It's pretty clear that IE6 was the better browser, with a more stripped-down interface and the ability to display most modern Web sites, and even play some Flash and Java content, including YouTube videos and games. I couldn't install Flash on Netscape because of a variety of error messages and problems loading download sites.
Netscape 6.1 had an awful interface, with a huge sidebar on the left giving you links to stocks, news and bookmarks. Thankfully, this can be moved to the side to open up more precious space for Web browsing. I'm guessing Netscape worked pretty well in 2001, but there are some sites - like NetworkWorld.com - that I couldn't load on Netscape and others where the text and graphics were all chopped up.
IE6 has too much wasted space at the top, but it loads most sites and feels far more modern than Netscape. Unfortunately, Microsoft didn't improve the user interface nearly enough in IE7 and IE8, leading to the browser's swift decline and the rise of Firefox and Chrome. Microsoft took a huge step forward with Internet Explorer 9, but IE6 doesn't seem all that different from its two successors.