Now that America Online Inc. has bought Netscape Communications Corp., one thing is certain: Netscape's brief run at immortality -- and its efforts to knock Microsoft Corp. off its perch as the dominant software company in the era of Internet computing -- is over.
Selling out to AOL is an implicit admission of failure. AOL's whole business is to cater to the new faces in cyberspace. Its business, as sprawling and successful as it is, has served largely to put computer users on a training path for the real use of the Internet, through Netscape's and Microsoft's browsers. Now, clearly, AOL wants the best of both worlds. It will even try to keep Netscape's Net-centred business separate from the AOL online business.
But AOL has a history of messing up Internet-related acquisitions. Three years ago, it tried to buy its way into the browser business on its own. And failed. It tried to buy its way into the server and services business. And failed. In fact, cyberspace is replete with failed acquisitions.
CompuServe paid a pretty penny for Spry Inc. a few years back, in its own bid to compete in the navigation arena, with its Internet in a Box, among other things. Not only did Spry not go anywhere after that merger, but CompuServe itself wound up in the arms of AOL. And now does anyone think of CompuServe as a significant player in the online world? The expectation remains that sooner or later AOL will simply absorb CompuServe's subscribers into its regular service.
Expect to hear the normal assurances that Netscape will be free to build up its NetCenter business and that AOL will provide more resources to do it. Expect to hear that Barksdale and cohorts will continue to run the show. And expect AOL to assure cyberspace that the Navigator browser will never go away. But don't be surprised at how quickly things change.
Don't be surprised if within two years, Barksdale has made a graceful exit, NetCenter (and its traffic) have become a repackaged AOL NetCenter, replacing AOL.com, and the Navigator browser is AOL's window to the cyberworld.
Can't we all just wait for the friendly voice and pop-up screen telling us, "You've got personalised ads," every time we log onto the Net? In that scenario, it's AOL versus Microsoft for the hearts and minds of browser users. Who would you pick?
Suddenly, the choices in cyberspace seem awfully limited.
Take me to the AOL/Netscape page.