commentary The settlement of the legal battle between Microsoft and AOL Time Warner means Netscape can now be taken off life support and the body harvested for any useful parts that remain.
The romantic in me says this is a terrible fate for a company whose Mosaic/Netscape browser changed the technology world so much. The realist in me responds that this only proves how overrated "first-mover advantage" really is. How many of the first companies to do anything are still in business when the industry matures?
I hate to be overly morbid or graphic, but Netscape actually died a long time ago. By the time AOL bought the company in 1999, the glory days of the Navigator browser were long over. An independent Netscape might have survived as an enterprise software company, maybe as an online media company. But AOL was already the second and didn't need the first.
What AOL did need was a convincing weapon against Microsoft. And now AOL Time Warner, for a mere US$750 million (real money to you and me, but little more than chump change to Microsoft), has signed the peace treaty and declared Internet Explorer its official browser of the future.
AOL Time Warner is now presumably no longer trying to punish Microsoft--and vice versa. But what about you and me, the browser users? Are we being punished?
No more standalone browsers?
More specifically, will the end of Netscape mean the end of third-party browsers? No. It just means that the best one is gone and that Windows is now, for all intents and purposes, a non-MS-browser free zone. The only alternative browsers I can think of are Opera and Mozilla, neither of which I think about very often. There's nothing wrong with these other browsers, but nothing so incredibly right that I want to use them.
Mac OS has non-MS browsers, Opera and Apple's own Safari, as well as Internet Explorer. How many of these will be left in 24 months is anyone's guess, but I use Safari on my Macs.
In the Linux world, Microsoft isn't a browser player. But most of us don't play with desktop Linux, so what happens there doesn't matter much to many of us. Linux could have a browser that's 10 times better than Internet Explorer, and few would switch from Windows to use it.
But is a better browser even possible? Is there anything that should be in a browser that isn't there now? Are we ready to accept the browser as a part of the operating system rather than as an application? Has the browser been effectively assimilated into Windows XP?
I'd say yes to all four questions. Yes, it's true that now we'll never know what other improvements competition might have brought. But I'd also argue that Microsoft is now in a position to implement a raft of proprietary browser features, such as supporting Web services, that should benefit us as users. If Microsoft does so, the only ones who might object are Opera and Mozilla.org--and that's hardly of wide public concern.
Probably more interesting is the apparent tacit understanding that MSN, with its 8 million subscribers and dopey butterfly, is no threat to AOL, with its 34 million subscribers and seemingly endless supply of CDs.
I hope that Microsoft and AOL will continue to compete. MSN is probably the better service and shows us the difference between something that is Internet-based and something that is really still a standalone service that happens to provide Internet features.
Still, the settlement is a clear sign that both companies have decided to stop being something they aren't.
For Microsoft, this means it can stop trying to be a media company. At one point, back when Microsoft was starting MSNBC, buying into cable TV, and creating online services a-plenty, it seemed quite plausible that media would be Microsoft's next big bet. Times have changed, ambitions have been reduced, and even Microsoft has learned that it can't be all things to all industries.
Reality check for AOL
AOL, on the other hand, can stop trying to be something it never seriously tried to become: a software company. Netscape was useful to AOL Time Warner, because it kept Microsoft tied up in legal battles. It was also enough of a browser that AOL could credibly threaten to move its huge subscriber base over to the in-house product and go head-to-head with Redmond.
Of course, all this supposes that AOL Time Warner plans to let Netscape go even more to seed than it already has, which would mean no 8.0 version and perhaps no more Mozilla. Maybe AOL Time Warner will continue to invest, though I can think of no good reason why it should.
Do I miss Netscape? Yes, but not because I need another browser. It's more that I wish the company had become a real competitor in the server, Web applications, and services businesses. That's where I think Netscape could have added real value. Now we'll never know.