21st:Please, Mr. Postman?

Netscape's and Microsoft's software just don't get along -- and God anyone who tries to get them to make up and be nice.

By Andrew Leonard

Published March 24, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I wasn't asking for much. All I wanted was for my chosen e-mail program to start up whenever I clicked an e-mail address on a Web page.

That simple trick was more than my old Unix-based e-mail program, Pine, could handle. I didn't want to break up with Pine. We'd been together for five long years, and I'd grown accustomed to its interface. I don't change my ways easily -- I've still got an Olivetti portable typewriter in my basement. But, in 1998, Pine no longer met my needs. What I didn't realize, however, was that my decision to switch to a graphically based, Windows-compatible e-mail program would plunge me into a swirl of software madness.

My problem was: I wanted to use Microsoft Outlook's mail program with Netscape Navigator -- two products from companies determined not to make software coexistence peaceful. To be precise, I wanted Outlook to launch whenever I clicked an e-mail address on a Navigator Web page.

Why Outlook, you ask, and not Eudora, the most popular e-mail program in the software marketplace? Well, call me a fool, but I was interested in taking advantage of how well all the Office 97 programs work with each other. Almost against my will I was becoming a convert to "integration." Outlook encourages the use of Microsoft Word as an e-mail editor, and has some very nice features that weave together contact directories, calendar functions and mail.

But Netscape gave Outlook the cold shoulder. Netscape has its own mail program, and didn't seem to permit using a "third-party mailer." Nothing I could find in either the Outlook or Navigator help files gave any hints as to how to solve the problem. Nor did Microsoft's or Netscape's Web sites offer any assistance. Finally, after combing the Net, I found some discussion of the problem in the Usenet newsgroup alt.netscape.buggy.software. There, I learned, I could forge a shotgun software marriage between the two programs by adding a couple of lines of code to an obscure "javascript preferences" file.

My natural tendency at such a juncture is to blame Microsoft. We all know that Bill Gates is the root of software evil. If Outlook won't work with Netscape, then it must be Microsoft's fault.

Except I was wrong. It was Netscape's fault.

I became convinced of Netscape's guilt after talking to Matt Parks, a senior product manager for Qualcomm's Eudora. Eudora has a neat little feature called the "Intercept Netscape Mailto URLs" function that does an end run around Netscape's intransigence. Enable it, and Eudora cleverly insinuates itself between Netscape and every Web page e-mail button.

Not that that was an easy task to pull off: "To be honest, it took a fair amount of development work and reverse engineering," said Parks.

With no help from Netscape. The problem wasn't with buggy software. Netscape wanted to make Navigator users adopt only Netscape's own mail program, and had no interest in making it easy for any other mailer to work with Navigator.

"I think it was intentional," said Parks. "I really did find it ironic. Here's the company that goes around saying, 'We are the open standards company,' and then it turns out to be Microsoft that makes it easy to integrate other programs with the browser."

And that's true. Internet Explorer does allow users to choose whatever mail program they desire -- it's part of their marketing mantra: "Internet Explorer enhances user choice," as Microsoft product managers tirelessly reiterate.

By this point in my journey into the heart of e-mail darkness, I had worked up a fair amount of anti-Netscape resentment. Here I was, loyally hanging on to my preference for Netscape Navigator in the face of a full-on assault by Gates' minions -- and now I had to deal with exactly the same kind of proprietary baloney on their part that Netscape is spending so much time and money accusing Microsoft of perpetrating.

Sure, Netscape recently attempted to grab the high moral ground by announcing that it will give away its source code (which, incidentally, will make reverse engineering Navigator functions infinitely easier). But it was hard to argue that this made them morally or ethically superior. My mail dilemma suggested that Netscape was just as guilty of slimy software weaseling as any other corporation on the Net. (Netscape hadn't returned my phone calls by press time.)

Then I chatted with a Microsoft product manager for Outlook. Was he aware of the problem Navigator had talking with Outlook?

Sure. "We've known about it for a while," said Microsoft's Scott Gode. "When Internet Explorer launched back last summer we made a point of pointing it out."

So ... any plans to do anything about it? Why didn't Outlook have a feature like Eudora's, one that would save me the trouble of scouring the Net for obscure code tweaks?

Gode didn't see the need. After all, most Outlook users had already chosen Internet Explorer. The subtext was clear: Explorer is so clearly superior that it's hard to imagine why anyone would choose Netscape Navigator anyway.

But wouldn't it be a competitive advantage against Eudora? Wouldn't it be a service to consumers?

"If we were to get an overwhelming amount of customer feedback that something like this needed to be done, then, yeah, we could do that," said Gode.

In fact, the newsgroups are alive with the sounds of users griping on this issue and many others. But Microsoft is loath to add such a feature to Outlook because it would give users one less reason to switch from Navigator to Explorer -- it might undermine Microsoft's campaign to turn the entire free world into Internet Explorer serfs.

Netscape? Microsoft? As we used to say in middle school: "Same difference."

My disgust for the rules of the software road only further deepened when I did finally get my mail working. It turned out that the fix posted to the Net did not work for the version of Outlook that I had already installed (Outlook 97). But luckily for me, on March 23, Microsoft made Outlook 98 available for free downloading off of its Web site.

I went to the Web site. I filled out the registration forms. I downloaded the patch check file that would tell me which service pack I had to install before I could download the setup file that would download and install all 32 megabytes of Outlook 98. (Note to readers: Don't try this at home. Big bandwidth is required, along with a healthy tolerance for absurdity.)

The installation process presented me with three options: minimal, typical and custom. Funny thing, though -- every option required downloading and installing Internet Explorer. But I didn't want to download Internet Explorer. The whole point of my increasingly pointless-seeming exercise was to allow me to keep using Netscape Navigator.

Now, despite my every best effort, there Explorer is, installed on my desktop. I suppose I could uninstall it. But why bother? Outlook 98 is clearly a far superior product to Outlook 97 -- even if it isn't easy to use with Netscape Navigator. Maybe I should just give in and complete my total self-integration into the Microsoft way of being.

I can certainly see why Microsoft isn't hurrying to add my desired functionality to Outlook. Again, why bother? While their main competitor alienates its own longtime users, Microsoft can just sit back and relax. Sooner or later, Netscape Navigator will be gathering as much dust as my Olivetti.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew LeonardFOLLOW koxinga21LIKE Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------