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The future of Netscape

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on June 20, 2003
(Issue 2125, Family Night Festivities)

In the wake of Microsoft's agreement to pay AOL Time-Warner $750 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that Internet Explorer was marketed and designed in a manner to illegally hurt the Netscape browser, the question now is what happens to Netscape?

In addition to the chunk of change from Bill Gates, AOL also gets a free license to continue using IE technology in the AOL environment through 2010.

Ever since AOL bought Netscape a few years back, the thinking has been that the Netscape browser engine would be used for the next-generation AOL interface – to free AOL from Microsoft's shackles.

But if AOL can continue using the IE engine they've been using AND be free of Microsoft, well, obviously that's less expense and hassle than re-creating the AOL portal around Netscape code.

The question remains, then, will AOL continue developing the Netscape browser?

Where's the market?

I guess the better question would be this: Why would AOL continue pouring money into Netscape?

At one time, Netscape offered industry-leading web servers as well as browsers, and Netscape was able to generate a substantial amount of money not only by selling its server software, but also by getting corporations to install Netscape on their PCs and pay for the privilege.

But if Microsoft's game plan of giving away IE to undercut Netscape's viability worked to perfection, it also created a permanent mindset in the public that Gates and Co. may not have anticipated: Few of us are willing to pay for a browser.

And so now IE is pretty much part and parcel of the Windows operating system – with Apple following suit in developing a new integrated browser for OSX, Safari.

The Netscape browser, now in iteration 7.x, is given away for free as a download even though it really is a tremendous piece of software, far superior in many ways to the latest version of IE. But the Web server market is pretty much divvied up between Microsoft and the free, open-source Apache.

The only other two serious players in the browser market are Opera and Mozilla. Mozilla is maintained by the open-source movement, and shares many features and source code with Netscape. Opera tried selling its browser – still does, actually – but has found more success via the Juno and Eudora model of embedding advertising in the software interface itself.

Preserving a pioneer

Netscape is often touted as the first graphical Web browser – although that's not actually true. Tim Berners-Lee's original 1989 browser for reading HTTP (hypertext, or Web) documents was created in the graphical environment of the NeXT workstation. (In a nice bit of irony, the text-based Lynx browser for non-graphical computers was developed after the graphical browsers!)

What Netscape did do was offer the first commercially supported graphical browser for Windows and Unix. Netscape was founded by college students in the early '90s who had worked on the first iteration of Mosaic at the University of Illionois.

They took their ideas from working on Mosaic, and used them to create the first Netscape browser. Netscape soon dominated the browser market, and Netscape was one of the first success stories.

Of course, any time Bill Gates sees someone else making money, it drives him crazy to the point he feels he has to destroy them – ask the folks at Digital Research who published an early mouse-driven desktop called GEM, or those in the IBM division that helped develop OS/2. Real Networks is also feeling the wrath of Bill for having the temerity to create a new standard without his royal permission.

Anyway, once IE was being given away for free – which Microsoft could afford to do on the profits of DOS and Windows – Netscape's entire business plan was useless. The fact that price gouging to drive a competitor out of business is illegal didn't seem to bother Gates, and the $750 million he's now paying AOL Time-Warner (a much larger, nastier and more dangerous foe than Netscape ever was) to settle the old Netscape claims represents only about one-tenth of Microsoft's on-hand cash reserve for legal fees.

Predicting the future

So now the question is will AOL continue to support Netscape – especially given the continuing crisis at AOL Time-Warner itself? Heck, the company itself may split up – so it's doubtful that the future of the tiny Netscape division is of any concern at corporate headquarters.

As mentioned, Netscape 7.x is a solid browser – with built-in e-mail and news clients, a nice graphical HTML editor (easier to use than Front Page, and more consistent with industry standards), and a "tab" system similar to that in Opera that allows you to have multiple browser windows open at one time within the overall Netscape window.

But the user base of those of us who bother to download, install and use Netscape is tiny compared to those who use the IE browser included when you buy any Windows computer. As with IE, Netscape makes some money by having the Netscape home page set as the default home page that is opened whenever you launch the browser – but with so few folks using Netscape, that's not a big money-maker, either (although the Netscape portal is every bit as good and up-to-date as the Microsoft one).

The only real reason to keep Netscape going would be to tweak the nose of Microsoft. And with AOL founder Steve Case ousted, there's no real personality left at AOL Time-Warner, nobody to care about competition and pride.

Nobody to to tweak Gates' nose.