Originally published in the March 1998 issue of The Silicon Alley Reporter
As I’m writing this two major land changes have occurred in the browser war: Microsoft has unbundled some Internet Explorer (IE) code, and Netscape announced it will offer its browser (Navigator) and source code for free. So who’s the big loser in all this?
As part of its announcement, Netscape also said its programmers will no longer develop Java virtual machines (JVM), the code which allows Java applications to run on any machine. Instead, they will let Microsoft, Sun, and all the other JVM developers create and supply their own. In a Business Week interview, Bill Gates admitted that be bundled Java with IE because Netscape Navigator was already doing it.
Whether Microsoft will continue supporting Java remains to be seen. But with Netscape shifting from Java ally to a position of neutrality, and Microsoft no longer under obligation to stick around, Sun’s brainchild may wilt.
<strong>The Netscape Strategy </strong>
While it’s too early to gauge Netscape’s decision, it’s not hard to guess potential futures:
<strong>The developer community abandons IE code in favor of Navigator’s. </strong>
A lot of software companies have taken on IE as the default browser for their products because it’s easy to integrate, broken down into components that can be used for authoring programs in visual basic or visual C++. However, with its code free, Netscape offers the same functionality. Parity has been restored between the two browsers, and it’s now up to the developers to decide what they want to do.
Based on the cross-platform offerings from Netscape, non-windows developers will take a long hard took at Navigator’s Technology for implementation. This will create new markets for Netscape and help slow the erosion of its shares.
<strong>PC makers embrace Netscape and unbundle IE</strong>
With free code at their disposal, PC makers will build browsers customized to their systems and rife with extra options. Or, computer makers will bundle both browsers and let customers choose.
<strong>Developers look at Navigator code and turn their backs</strong>
Developers complain about the code’s bulkiness and its deterioration over time, abandoning the platform and favoring IE.
<strong>Hackers seize the Netscape code and exploit its security holes</strong>
Available source code means that it’s also available to the hacker community. Security holes much larger than any exposed by ActiveX will be revealed. A few well-publicized events of Netscape security abuses or other nastiness with Netscape-based code could make users wary of the browser, and backlash might ensue.
<strong>Microsoft and the Developers</strong>
If Netscape’s strategy succeeds, developers will build a version that supports all browser tags, including those specific to IE. If Netscape strategy fails, Microsoft will dominate the market, leaving Web builders with the IE standard. Either way, a single standard for Web development will emerge.
Meanwhile, Microsoft can now say that browsers are not stand-alone applications but add-ons, similar to the power toys offered on their site. If both IE and Navigator are free to users, they’ll serve as entry gates into their respective product suites.
In the end, the DOJ case is weaker: With no revenue attached to either browser, Microsoft can claim that the added functionality provided by a browser is part of a set of innovations that doesn’t hurt company, ergo it CAN be bundled with the operating system unless the DOJ wants to dictate what features are available in any software.
Overall, the developers come out on top. Netscape’s move has shifted the battle from a conflict over price to a fight for technological innovation, and given developers ammunition in the process. Microsoft may be forced to play catch up and will have to consult developers before releasing new features. In a sense, the browser wars are now over, and the victor is the development community.