Q&A: Spyglass's Harris-Evans on putting the Web everywhere

ZDNN spoke yesterday with David Harris-Evans, UK managing director of Spyglass, the company that developed the Mosaic Web browser and is now pushing its technology as a means of accessing the Web from a wide variety of devices including TVs, telephones, point-of-sale systems and home automation hubs.Your strategy is to put the Web into a wide variety of devices from televisions through telephones to cars, homes and various vertical market opportunities.

ZDNN spoke yesterday with David Harris-Evans, UK managing director of Spyglass, the company that developed the Mosaic Web browser and is now pushing its technology as a means of accessing the Web from a wide variety of devices including TVs, telephones, point-of-sale systems and home automation hubs.

Your strategy is to put the Web into a wide variety of devices from televisions through telephones to cars, homes and various vertical market opportunities. Correct?

That's right. Often, we're presented as the company that lost out in the browser wars and are now trying something different but people are wrong to associate us with the browser wars. In reality we were the company that began the browser wars by licensing our engine to Microsoft [for Internet Explorer].

What we're doing now boils down to consumer-oriented and not IT-oriented, and if it works right it isn't a visible mixture [between technology and usage]. If the user doesn't realise it's the Web, it's probably going to sell.

The potential is huge although usually the press see our profits warnings as portents of doom and opportunities to write horrible things about us.

You're following the standard Internet company model of making nothing now but believing you'll be making a fortune in the future...

Well, a lot of Internet companies are making lots of money now and won't in the future. We're looking at more than the PC market, and we've been in transition to take advantage of this since 1995.

So what is your target audience?

The customer is not a desktop PC user because the vast majority of people aren't in this exalted sector where we believe everyone knows what a PC is and has access to one. The mass-market interaction with machines is more likely to be with fruit machines and the hole in the wall than a PC.

The biggest opportunity is in banks, TVs, stores and telephones. The Internet is going to be a source of information, a window to the world of information.

Companies like Microsoft and Novell have been talking for a long time about putting PC technology into devices. Why the Web?

It's established. The standards work. HTML, HTTP, TCP/IP are a solid, stable set of technologies that have shown themselves to be scalable enough to support universal access. What we see is a convergence not just for computing but for commerce and content to a single source of data.

What's it really going to give?

It could be the dynamic reading of a car's status or feeding information to the car to keep passengers happy.

A TV experience can be entirely different. You could have football, Baywatch and 1950's movies all the time if that's your taste, and with enhanced programming guides to give you more information. You could video-record programmes by clicking on a screen button. That's Internet technology but not in the sense that we know it today.

Look at a telephone: you could do your own directory enquiries using the LDAP protocol. The telco's will be delighted; they hate directories because they don't make any money from it. You could also have a train timetable on there.

Home automation is a long way off but emerging: the ability to heat your home by clicking. The industry automation companies are all looking at this for new homes.

That's the future: information that is packaged rather than making you search the Web.

Do you never regret following the Netscape route?

We saw Netscape coming up with a packaged browser that would have a low price and be componentised. Microsoft was concerned and licensed us. If you click Help/About we're still there. It's hard to tell how much of our code there is in IE now but we know there are some very early bugs still in IE, or at least in IE 3.0!

We saw an opportunity to build a set of embedded technologies that people could use to build custom browsers. We could have come up with a commercial product but we had decided that Microsoft would kill Netscape. We felt that the real growth in use of the Net would come from the consumer electronics sector and we started looking at how to get there.

Clearly we needed cash so we went public a couple of months before Netscape and announced our strategy towards the end of last year. We're really starting to deliver on those technologies now.

We're looking at a market manifold times as big as the PC market. TV and telephone sales far surpass PCs and I think that will soon be true of mobile technology.

The alternatives are to convert content at source or beef up the device itself. The first is very costly and time-consuming. The second... Mitsubishi and Sharp produced PC and TV hybrids which didn't make any sense, just made very expensive PCs. In telecoms, Motorola produced a 16Mb Java telephone that didn't do much apart form fry your ear. We think it's better to put the intelligence with the telco and the ISP.

We're trialling everywhere. GTE is one of the first to announce. You'll see a lot more of these announcements, particularly in Europe.

What chance has a company the size of Spyglass the way that the big boys are tolling up. Oracle has Navio, Sun has Diba, Microsoft has WebTV...

At first site that's true. All I can say is that if you could move the clock forward a few months you'll see more announcements that might make you change your mind.

The challenge is more from Oracle and Microsoft because Sun bought the wreckage of a company. I don't think Sun bought much... Diba is pretty much a shell, frankly.

Oracle, Sun and Microsoft have enormous marketing power but a very small customer base for this technology. We're the opposite.

Most of the consumer electronics companies are much bigger than Microsoft or Oracle. Both are proposing very rigid models. Why would Philips, Sony, Panasonic use someone else's reference model when they've developed their brands all these years and have very little opportunity for differentiation.

I think they've all been subordinated to a battle of wills and egos. Quite frankly, Oracle and Navio doesn't even appear on the radar screen of many corporates. Microsoft has spent a fortune on WebTV and has 100,000 customers, not many more than before it bought it.

I don't know why Gates, Ellison and McNealy don't just get into three MIG-29s and fight it out and let the rest of us get back to normality. Apart from the Java development language the rest of what Sun promised is falling apart at the seams. It just isn't delivering on its promises. They should stick to their knitting. Oracle has excellent database technology and a formidable customer list.

It's exceedingly confusing for companies to hear all this rhetoric and then sort out the wheat form the chaff.

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