Browser Vendors Cave In, Millions Trapped — In the latest bizarre turn of events in the browser wars between Microsoft and Netscape, Microsoft has agreed to the Justice Department’s demand that Windows 95 be available without Internet Explorer bundled with it, while Netscape has made its browser free and promises to release source code for the upcoming Navigator 5.0.
Coincidentally, Microsoft released its fourth quarter 1997 earnings, showing that they netted over a billion dollars in that quarter alone. Netscape, around the same time, announced losses, laid off several hundred employees, and their stock price dropped to a level near its initial public offering.
What’s the world coming to? A regrouping of forces, that’s for sure. Netscape wasn’t making most of its profit from browser sales. Abandoning all revenue from the browser market might enable them to compete on even ground with Microsoft in gaining the hearts and minds of corporations and PC makers. Prior to this, Netscape required site licenses for companies and per-machine fees for OEMs (original equipment manufacturers, such as Compaq, Dell, and Toshiba).
Microsoft, on the other hand, has now agreed to offer these same OEMs a version of Windows 95 that has all obvious instances of Internet Explorer removed. Internet Explorer will still be installed, but the user will have to ferret it out. OEMs can also choose a version of Windows 95 with the majority of Internet Explorer files and resources removed and that will boot, but it will lack almost all built-in Internet functionality. It’s unclear if this includes utilities as simple as the PPP software used to connect to an ISP.
Netscape’s decision to release source code for Navigator 5.0 appears to be outside the context of the rest of these announcements and events. In the Unix world, freeware and source code is almost a given for the majority of software used on servers. The emergence of the Web was the beginning of a real market for selling Unix server software rather than releasing code from universities and cooperative projects. In opposition to the growing commercialization of Unix server software, many developers have banded together in projects like Apache, which is a superb freeware Web server created and maintained by an army of programmers devoting their time gratis to the idea that having a good free server is in the best interests of the world. Apache is one of the most widely used Web servers, outpacing Netscape’s various releases, Microsoft’s Internet Information Server, and several other major offerings.
Netscape might be trying to hearken back to an earlier time when source code flowed freely from machine to machine, but it’s not a clear motive. Perhaps by putting their mature pieces into the hands of this worldwide programming community they can have their ideas spread even further. But without control of the branding, development, and other components of the browser, I, for one, don’t see what Netscape gets out of it.
On the one hand, we might be seeing the last futile cries of Netscape before the company is sucked into the maw of an Oracle, Sun, Motorola, or another industry giant. Microsoft might be poised to own 80 or 90 percent of the browser market share by the end of 1998. On the other hand, these major shifts in the landscape may turbocharge Netscape’s continued advances into the corporate "enterprise" – the set of computers, networks, and servers that make up the information systems of a company. No outcome is clear yet, but tectonic shifts often cause new continents to rise out of the murky deep. Opera, anyone? [GF]