At this time Netscape defined the web. If you browsed webpages you used netscape. Sure it crashed a lot. Yes it ran out of memory when some punk decided a page with 12 frames would be cool. But if you used anything else you were missing out on the full glory of the web. So when Netscape said they were doing something cool for the internet you listened with equal interest, excitement and doubt.
Sounded like a toy. Netscape already messed up websites with the damn <BLINK> tag. Sure you could have some nice effects like a live clock or a image changing on a timer. But they'd just be gimmicks that no one would care about in time. Java would let us all write proper applications for browsers. How wrong we were...
The next 5 years was a mess. Java proved to be a dog. Never lived up to it's promise as it ate up memory and cpu like a glutton and never did anything fantastic. Sure you can get some nice Java programs no but in the late '90s there was two camps. Newly trained Java engineers getting high salaries from companies who believed the shit Sun was putting out promoting the language like the second coming. And people like me waiting for it to die in a fire because it was frankly crap.
Ajax was a word thrown around for a while. It took some digging to find out what it meant. And even then it wasn't clear why it was useful. Then like an explosion on the internet it all became clear in one app. It was 2005 and the internet changed thanks to Google Maps.