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US Report: Consumers fume over AOL-Netscape

If the dozens of messages posted to the ZDNN Web site are anything to judge by, consumers have plenty of concerns about America Online's $4.2 bn (£2.5bn) purchase of Netscape Communications.
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

Uncomfortable with the idea of a new technology superpower, readers reeled off a litany of possible ways the deal could doom Netscape's Navigator browser, Internet service providers and even the Internet itself. But others said a new superpower might be just what the Internet needs to balance the power of Microsoft, with its ubiquitous Windows operating system and software.

ISPs now face the awkward prospect of offering browser software from either Microsoft or AOL, both of which run competing online services, as San Jose attorney Lewis Mettler pointed out. "ISPs may still desire to offer the Netscape browser, but to do so they help out AOL, which is a competitor if not a direct one," he said.

Many readers expressed their fear that the deal will mean the end of Navigator, leaving Microsoft's Internet Explorer as the only viable choice -- similar to the way many see the market for consumer-oriented operating systems. "AOL has no commitment to any platform other than Microsoft, and Netscape on any other platform will evaporate," predicted Tim Jones, a Unix engineer.

Internet security consultant Nathaniel Tobius also raised concerns about the future of cross-platform browsing. "This is nothing less than a cataclysmic catastrophe," he wrote. "What about open source code? What about future enhancements [to Navigator] that were almost certainly to come from the thousands of bit-twiddlers that had their hands on that source and an eye to the future?"

Others worried that AOL, which has a reputation among some for shoddy service, won't be able to properly manage the Netscape business, or that the AOL influence will make itself felt in other, more direct ways. "If this happens, the Netscape browser will disappear into the AOL dark hole and all of us who currently use Netscape browsers will probably be flooded with porno e-mail!" speculated consultant Rob French. Summing up many readers' opinions, engineer Chris Corich lamented, "This feels like a shotgun wedding-- with AOL holding the gun. AOL, the dumb [and ugly] bride, catching the [still] fetching Netscape."

But is AOL really a greedy maw swallowing smaller companies whole? "Call me crazy, but a lot of people seem to be whining," wrote John Croson, a student. "It would appear to me that Netscape has a lot to gain by this merger." He suggested Opera, a browser designed to conserve processor power and hard-drive space, as an alternative to the Big Two.

Consultant Chuck Flink suggested that it's the right time for the browser wars to end. "The entrepreneurs and inventors in Netscape [need to] to quit reinventing the wheel in the browser market and move on," he wrote. "Browsers are commodity today, thanks to both Netscape and Microsoft. Get on with something else."

The deal could even spur more innovation, he said, arguing that "the Netscape investors will make out like bandits; there will be lots of incentive for new technology start-ups like Netscape." As for discontinuing Netscape's support for non-Microsoft platforms, systems engineer Larry Frazier said AOL has the incentive to do just the opposite. "The fact is that in order to increase its reach and properly manage its portals, AOL will have to keep the browser viable outside of AOL proper," he wrote. He said the deal might even create "some strong competition to Microsoft."

Others pointed out that a strong Netscape browser could aid AOL in its plans to create an HTML-based version of its online service, and even to compete against AT&T, which intends to build an online empire based on cable-television wiring from recently-acquired TCI. The "Netscape browser could be a way to lock users into a path that would allow AOL to retain its portal status regardless of how users get access," wrote software engineer Dean Stevenson.

But what about Excite, the twin of Yahoo! portal site? While some predicted that Yahoo!, Microsoft's MSN.com and the combined AOL-Netscape entity would put Excite into a depression, others said the start-up has several options for continued growth. "With more than 40 million page views ... Excite [same as Lycos] will be a very feasible acquisition target [[for] Microsoft ... why not?]" wrote Arnold Rodriguez.

Faced with so many possible outcomes, some readers simply wanted to wash their hands of the matter. "Netscape's browser stinks. AOL's service stinks. They make a good team," submitted Web designer Mike Wright. "I wish them the best."

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