Cyber-David and Goliath: Who will rule the Internet

The Internet browser war is heating up. You'd think it was a political campaign, what
with all the name-calling and eye-gouging. Even users are getting jerked around with FUD
(fear, uncertainty and deception) spread by combatants Netscape Communication Corp. and
Microsoft Corp.


This sounds like a classic David vs. Goliath fight, with a twist: Software giant
Microsoft actually is the tiny little David, while the smaller Netscape plays the giant
role. But a close look reveals more similarities than differences.


Both companies are headed by young techno-geeks rich beyond the imagination of anyone
on a government salary. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates might be the richest person in the
United States. Netscape's chief technologist Marc Andreessen has watched his stock
holdings soar into the financial stratosphere.


It's safe to assume these guys have no money worries for their lifetimes, and possibly
their heirs' lifetimes. Both still seem thoroughly entranced by technology. I don't think
the money means much to them.


Microsoft has a reputation for never inventing anything, just stealing ideas and
marketing the heck out of them. It's interesting to note that Netscape's base technology,
Navigator, also was "stolen"--from Andreessen's undergraduate work on the
world's first browser, Mosaic, developed at the University of Illinois National Center for
Supercomputing Applications.


Microsoft is giving away its Internet Explorer 3.0 browser, free for the downloading
from the Web. It is also integrating it into future versions of Windows, which surely will
factor in a cost for the browser.


Netscape garnered its impressive market share by similar methods. Those of us with long
memories recall a not-too-distant past when Netscape Navigator was absolutely free. Of
course, it carries a charge now, except for beta copies with a built-in time-out.


Other than Netscape having had a head start in this particular market, I don't see much
difference.


Both companies want to dominate Internet standards. Microsoft always has played this
way, charging very low prices or giving away product to win market share is standard
business practice. Netscape is following a similar course--why shouldn't it?


In previous iterations of their browsers, both companies have been guilty of foisting
off Hypertext Markup Language extensions not yet approved by the World Wide Web Consortium
standards group. This has led to a great deal of incompatibility for webmasters to deal
with, but the outcome really has been to strengthen HTML. Many of the extensions these
companies put into earlier browsers did become de facto standards over time. Others died a
death by omission.


Both companies are guilty of pushing their own interactive content extensions. Netscape
touts third-party plug-ins, while Microsoft touts third-party ActiveX controls. Same thing
for the end user, but implemented in quite different ways technically.


Netscape still refuses to acknowledge ActiveX, though a Canadian company, NCompass Labs
Inc., has an ActiveX plug-in that provides limited compatibility with Navigator.
Microsoft's latest Explorer 3.0 finally does support plug-ins. I guess it was the first to
blink in this standoff, by deciding to support both extensions.


Both companies see their products as the basis for how we will interact with computers
in the future. Microsoft sees Windows with its integrated browser as a daily work
paradigm. Netscape sees the average user booting up directly into Netscape to browse the
Web or open a word processing document. Again, not a lot of difference.


Personally, I'm getting tired of all the FUD. Like most users, I don't really care
which browser I use, I just want it to support all the Internet standards. That means both
vendors will have to demonstrate a lot more "give."


Microsoft shows signs of realizing this. Its browser now supports both ActiveX and
plug-ins. The company recently announced it would add only W3C-approved HTML extensions to
its browser and would turn over control of ActiveX technology to an independent group,
where it could become an open standard.


So far, Netscape hasn't made a similar move. Sort of sounds like Microsoft in the Steve
Ballmer-inspired ""Windows, Windows, Windows'' period, doesn't it?


Charles S. Kelly is a computer systems analyst at the National Science Foundation.
You can e-mail him on the Internet at ckelly@cpcug.org.
  This column expresses his personal views, not the official views of NSF.



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