Turning point in the Browser Wars

At Seybold show, Microsoft out-Netscapes Netscape

Published September 13, 1996 9:10AM (EDT)

the World Wide Web Browser Wars, not content with gracing the cover of Time this week, opened a new front at Seybold San Francisco this week -- and this particular dust-up between Microsoft and Netscape may well have revealed the long-term victor.

It was advertised as a debate. But Netscape, apparently refusing to appear unless the two companies' presentations were separate, deprived an overflow audience at the Seybold keynote of a head-to-head clash. As it turned out, that was probably just as well; a debate would have been far too one-sided.

Microsoft, facing an audience with anti-Windows venom coursing through its Apple-rainbow-colored veins, wowed the crowd -- while Netscape, which has had the (low- to no-profit) World Wide Web browser "market" to itself for most of the past two years, did little to advance its cause. It was one of the finest examples in recent history of a company snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

You might have expected Microsoft, a relative Billy-come-lately to the Web and a company steeped in stodgy corporate sales despite its little-guy beginnings, to plod through a checklist of why its Internet Explorer is better than Netscape Navigator. And you might have predicted that Netscape -- an upstart startup with a massively disproportionate price-equity ratio, launched on the basis of genuinely cool software done by college folks -- would sizzle and rock and roll.

Instead, the two companies reversed roles. Marc Andreesen, founder and Senior VP of Technology of Netscape, plodded monotonously through a series of static slides explaining Netscape's strategy with all of the excitement of a... well, a Microsoft salesman selling Windows NT to a Boston bank.

On the other hand, Brad Chase, Microsoft's VP of Internet Platform & Tools, started with an upbeat video featuring a take-off on the old Petula Clark hit, "Downtown," called "Online." The lyrics were witty and savvy, the production values first-rate, and the impression left was that Microsoft "got it."

If the Browser Wars are being fought on the battlefield of public perception (and they are, in part), and if the Seybold audience was an important group to influence, Netscape could just fold up its telescope and go home. But, of course, this war is not quite so shallow.

Still, if you listened carefully to both presentations and to Jonathan Seybold's barbed-tongued questions for the principals, the outcome of the war seems inescapable. Netscape leads in the near term, but within six to nine months, that lead will disappear. And within 18 months, Netscape could become the subject of a bunch of really annoying trivia questions for the next generation of computerphiles.

Ironically, Microsoft is likely to win the war in the long term by out-Netscaping Netscape -- in much the same way the Democrats will win the White House this fall by out-Republicaning the Republicans. The Seybold presentations suggest that:

  • Netscape's primary marketing and technology focus will be on corporate "Intranet" sales, a mistake of gargantuan proportions. Microsoft owns corporate computing. Fighting this battle on their turf is the kind of tactical error that would make Sun Tzu giddy at the prospect of enemy annihilation.

  • Microsoft not only understands the critical importance of integrating users' desktops with the Web and the Internet, it is uniquely positioned to create that integration. Indeed, when Chase gave the audience a glimpse of Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0's "Active Desktop," one self-described Macintosh die-hard called it "totally awesome, and the only reason I've seen to think about switching platforms." Netscape cannot even attempt this level of integration -- for the simple reason that it doesn't own the operating system's source code the way Microsoft does.

  • Netscape has been known for supporting -- and in some cases leading -- the open standards that have allowed the Web to grow so fast. But now it has allowed Microsoft to leapfrog it: While Netscape has declined (at least so far) to embrace a new Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) 3.2 feature called "cascading style sheets," Microsoft has not only adopted the feature but implemented it elegantly. (It's not really clear that style sheets are useful, let alone important -- but they are part of the standard.)

Couple these observations with Seybold's remark to attendees, "I've never seen Microsoft make such a 90-degree strategic shift so quickly and so completely as it has with the Internet," and toss in the fact that Microsoft has won virtually every magazine's browser shoot-out in recent weeks, and one can only conclude that Netscape is in deep yogurt.

For Netscape to respond to this troubled scenario by attacking its enemy where it's strongest -- ownership of the corporate desktop -- is simple suicide. Unless Netscape returns to its positioning as the open-standards-based browser consumers prefer by giving those consumers a reason to choose Navigator over Explorer, the company's heyday may be one of the shortest-lived in the history of a particularly volatile industry.

Quote of the day

Gentlemen's Disagreement

"He's using them and they're using him. It sounds like a political and advertising peep show, especially since it's all off the record. [The New Yorker reporters are] just being used as window-dressing for the advertisers. It's in poor taste."

-- Harper's Magazine publisher John R. MacArthur, commenting on a breakfast meeting the New Yorker arranged for its advertisers to hear its reporters interview Dick Morris.

"He's such a little trust-fund brat. Grow up. What's he looking for, the tooth fairy?"

-- New Yorker president Thomas A. Florio, responding to MacArthur. Both quotes from Friday's New York Times.

By Dan Shafer

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