Analysis: Who will buy my Netscape?

M&A fever seems to be in the air again and this time the matchmakers are citing Netscape with, well… take your pick.

Mega-mergers such as the Compaq-Digital announcement nearly always lead to fervid minds seeking follow-ups, and companies known for great technology but spotty finances and low-riding share prices are obvious contenders for chit-chat.

Netscape fits the bill beautifully and its recently announced intention to cut some staff and projects will make it a yet more attractive target. Shares were up sharply yesterday on rumours of a buyout.

Potential purchasers should have close links with the one-time Internet king of the castle. So, likely buyers: here's a pinprickers' guide to the fun.

Sun is a popular choice. The company has the cash and CEO Scott McNealy possibly has the desire to go up against Microsoft. However, he will be reminded of where that Icarus-like policy got Ray Noorda when he was running Novell and bought - disastrously - the WordPerfect applications group. Also, Netscape's curbing of some Java development will not have enamoured McNealy. Third, there is the little matter that Sun has never run a software operation in the image of Netscape. Call it a 7-2 shot.

More likely perhaps is Oracle. Larry Ellison is privately super-rich and could afford Netscape without consulting the piggy bank. He is also a Gates-baiter of old and would love to work with Netscape - a far more public company than the database cash cow. Again though, the step away from Java may cut. 3-1.

Any bid by another Java-crazed company, Corel, would require outside assistance and would certainly be audacious. If the Canadians were to try to bring their retail nous to Netscape it would be Michael Cowpland's bravest (and arguably most foolhardy) stunt yet. 100-1 long shot.

A less interesting development but one that would attract the smart money may be that Netscape will sell non-central business units to a close partner, perhaps jettisoning client operations in order to focus on back-end enterprise opportunities. 9-2.

Best bet may be IBM. Acquisitive, Java-adoring Big Blue may see Netscape as a means of bolstering its enterprise groupware and e-commerce offerings. What would then happen to a true blue Netscape is, of course, a matter for a different type of speculation. 5-2 Favourite.