In a dramatic about-turn that responds to the demands of both customers and developers, Netscape is to make its mainstream browser software and source code free. The firm said that the plan revolves around its desire to scatter its client software and code as the "seed corn" that drives enterprise and Web site revenues.
Both the standard versions of the Navigator browser and Communicator Net client will be made available gratis and source code will be available from the Developer release of Communicator 5.0 due this January-March calendar quarter.
"Netscape is the fastest growing software company in history but our market has grown beyond the browser to custom software, messaging and services where there are phenomenal growth opportunities," said Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale. Client market share is the seed corn. We believe the time is right to make this move. A very small percentage of our business is client revenues... 13 per cent now compared to 45 per cent a year ago. Netscape is no longer a browser-only company."
Barksdale identified three factors where Netscape need to be on its toes: price, bundling and product innovation.
In complement to making the browsers free, Barksdale vowed to enhance subscriptions and support, but said "OEMs and ISPs will be able to download [client software] with no strings attached".
Barksdale also said he was heartened by the harnessing of Microsoft business activities.
"We expect recent actions by the Department of Justice, EU and Japan to effectively contain Microsoft anti-competitive practices, opening up many new opportunities. [Microsoft] finally got around to doing what they probably should have done a few weeks ago," he said, referring to the DOJ settlement today, and adding for good measure a quote from the DOJ anti-trust head Joel Klein that the actions would allow products to "compete on their own merits".
Of far more interest to the developer community will be the freeing up of Communicator 5.0 source code that, Barksdale said "unleashed the power of hundreds of thousands of Internet software developers".
Mike Homer, executive VP of sales and marketing at Netscape, said the source code move would allow third-party developers modify and freely distribute code based on the GNU Public Licence (GPL) standard that demands developers freely pass on code enhancements in exchange for the right to modify and distribute source code. Netscape will start Web sites and newsgroups to enable that exchange and build in third-party enhancements to its software according to customer demand and popularity measured by Web site demand.
Homer said that as well as "igniting the Web development community to rally around the Communicator standard", the free browser and source code policy would drive traffic to Netscape Web sites, an important source of advertising revenue.
"I don't think the primary thing people are going to do is create knock-outs of the Netscape browser," he said, suggesting that security would be an attractive aspect for developers to telescope in on. "Maybe someone will come along and build another Netscape around it."
Communicator Pro will be reduced in price and over time made into a modular add-in suite to enhance standard versions of Navigator and the vanilla Communicator with component features such as auto-administration, Host-On-Demand 3270 emulation and calendaring.
Homer said Netscape hadn't decided on whether the Java-based 'Javagator' browser, also due this year, will have its source code made available. Netscape expects to ship the full version of Navigator in the second half of 1998.