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AOL ponders browser plans

Netscape's new owner needs to keep its spot on your Windows desktop. So what does that mean for your browser choices?

December 7, 1998
Web posted at: 9:30 AM EST

by Paul Heltzel

(IDG) -- If you use Netscape Navigator or Communicator, you're probably wondering what will happen with your browser. You've heard about the buyout of Netscape Communications by America Online, and the three-way deal with Sun Microsystems. So what's in it for you?

We may need to get back to you on that, because details are far from clear.

First, some background, The deal was seen by most as a way for AOL to leap into the commercial realm and become a more serious player in the commercial Internet market, rather than act as a consumer's simplest route to the Net. And Netscape -- which has seen its browser share fall dramatically -- would like to get its hands on AOL's 14 million subscribers.

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You may be familiar with the Communicator open-source project, aka, which allows programmers worldwide to generate new Communicator code. Netscape has lately been showing off the fruits of that project: a fast page-rendering engine that is leaner and meaner than its predecessor and fits on one floppy disk.

Despite AOL Chief Executive Officer Steve Case's assurance that Netscape will retain its own brand (and its autonomy) some fear that Communicator and the much-anticipated open-source project will be folded into AOL's interface.

Development details to come

AOL representative Jim Whitney says details are still being fleshed out, since the acquisition isn't final. But he points out that AOL will continue to offer Navigator and Communicator to its subscribers. And Case has said that Microsoft's Internet Explorer will stay so that AOL will continue to appear on the Windows desktop.

"There are some indications that AOL doesn't know what to do with its software investment [in Netscape]," says Kathey Hale, a principal analyst at research firm Dataquest. "That position on the enemy's desktop is more valuable than the browser is now. But Steve Case is a strategic thinker, so he'll be looking for where the payoff is. They'll keep their options open."

But AOL's Whitney says the company will market Netscape's browser aggressively. AOL plans to tie it with the ICQ instant messaging client that AOL acquired in its purchase of Israeli-based Mirabilis in June. The ICQ site will promote Netscape downloads to its 5 million users.

Some observers question how effective AOL will be in overseeing and supporting Netscape's development efforts. In a recent PC World poll that asked readers about their satisfaction with software vendors, AOL ranked worst by far, with 56 percent of respondents saying that they were dissatisfied (see link below).

A server shootout

Netscape's and Sun's competing server products raise another sticky question. Hale says she expects a "behind-the-scenes fist fight" over the companies' competing products.

Some Netscape commerce server products will be a nice fit, Hale says. But the Web application servers present a troubling redundancy.

"The conflict is feature for feature," Hale says. "There's direct overlap between the Web application servers." This strikes her as bad for customers: "I'm hard pressed to think of a single benefit."

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