Web wars

Did Bill Gates beat Netscape fair and square?

Published June 18, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Once upon a time, back when the Web was young, when 14.4 modems were online-access Ferraris and spam was still just lunch meat, one fervent belief united many early Internet pioneers: Microsoft didn't "get" the Net. Bill Gates was blind to the Internet's revolutionary potential, ran the wistful line of thinking, and therefore Microsoft, ultimately, was doomed.

Who did capture the hearts and minds of Net citizens? Why, Netscape, of course. Netscape may not have invented the Web browser, but few people who were online in 1994 will deny that the release of Netscape Navigator fundamentally changed how people interacted with cyberspace. Navigator was fast -- fast enough to make Web surfing more than just a hobby for committed nerds. Before Netscape, the Web was cool. After Netscape, the Web was fun.

And after the Netscape public offering in the summer of 1995, the Web was for real. Netscape's stunningly successful IPO symbolized, in a very concrete way, the lucrative intersection of Wall Street finance and the still playful, wet behind the ears world of the Net. More than any other single event, Netscape's IPO ushered in the era of the "Internet economy" -- that mad roller coaster ride of techno-fueled stock market speculation that continues to this very day.

But in the long run, winning over the hearts and minds of legions of Web surfers proved insufficient. Conventional wisdom was wrong -- Microsoft wasn't doomed. Far from it. Today, Netscape is a mere subsidiary of America Online, with shrinking browser market share and sinking staff morale. Microsoft, meanwhile, reigns supreme, more powerful and profitable than ever. Threats to Redmond's hegemony still exist, but Netscape isn't one of them.

Was it all a dream -- that fantasy that the Net would free us all from unwilling allegiance to a single corporate monolith? As the critical events of the Web's formative years now begin to fade into the hoary status of myth and folklore, two new books purport to explain just what happened, to create history out of the recent past. The books, "How the Web Was Won" and "Netscape Time," complement each other nicely -- both are one-sided accounts that tell different sides of the story. "How the Web Was Won," by Seattle Times journalist Paul Andrews, pushes the Microsoft point of view. "Netscape Time," by Netscape co-founder Jim Clark, is understandably skewed toward Netscape's side of the story.

Clark's acerbic, no-holds-barred, "I've got $2 billion and can say whatever the hell I want" style is more entertaining than Andrews' painstaking e-mail by corporate e-mail reconstruction of how Microsoft tackled the Web like a pit bull on steroids. But neither book satisfies -- both stab at the truth with all-too partisan knives.

The "Rashomon"-like inconsistencies between Clark's and Andrews' accounts of what became referred to, early on, as the "browser wars," are often ludicrous enough to be worth a few good chuckles. In "How the Web Was Won," "Bill Gates and his band of Internet idealists" remake Microsoft through acts of "heroism" and savagery. If Andrews is to believed, nearly everyone at Microsoft is either a hero or a wild beast, or both! Andrews describes Microsoft president Steve Ballmer, for example, as both a "mad dog" (which appears to be a term of praise in the Microsoft corporate lexicon) and a "panther, eyes watchful, head moving, broad round shoulders forward. Powerful yet fluid, and always with a sense of impending destination."

"Netscape Time"? Well, let's just say Jim Clark has a slightly different take. His young band of pasty-faced programmers, living off of pizza and Jolt, sleeping under their desks -- to Clark, they're the true heroes -- selflessly sacrificing themselves in the not-so-long march to the holy IPO. Microsoft, on the other hand, is basically a breeding ground for ruthless exterminators, led by a living fiend. Clark writes: "I for one had no doubt about what lay beneath Bill Gates' jolly nerd exterior -- a killer instinct and sheer, relentless aggression. I knew that when he reacted, it would be with ferocity. Gates was like the evil Lord Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit fable, 'The Fellowship of the Rings,' whose all-seeing eye searched ceaselessly for any threat to his tyranny."

Mad dogs and tyrannous lords of Mordor aside, Clark and Andrews differ on more than just their characterizations of the individual players. Both authors are writing with an eye to a readership likely to be following the current antitrust trial.

For Andrews, the trial seems like an unfair imposition on a hard-working company; at one point near the end of his account, Andrews notes that "the battle that Microsoft had won in the marketplace was shifting to the vastly untechnological terrain of law and justice." For Clark, however, the trial is a just reward: Microsoft wouldn't have won the battle if it hadn't abused that very same marketplace -- "normal, tough business tactics, when put into practice by monopolies, become illegal," he declares.

Clark's point of view is self-serving -- as he admits, "I don't doubt, given absolute power, we might be capable of all sorts of low blows and eye-gouging." But right from the outset you expect Clark to tell an opinionated tale making a strong case for viewing Netscape as the abused victim of a rapacious monopoly. Clark is a player, after all, a key instigating force in encouraging the federal government to initiate antitrust proceedings against Microsoft.

But Clark is also at his worst precisely when he is whining about Microsoft -- after pages and pages celebrating the glory of the valley entrepreneur -- all of a sudden it's time to call in the federal cavalry. And he's only a little bit better when he's going on and on and on about his other main obsession -- the fabled IPO. "Netscape Time" starts with the public offering, returns to it in the middle of the narrative, and then finishes with it. After all those references to 22-year-old millionaires, it's hard to feel much sympathy for Netscape's eventual fate.

As founder of both Silicon Graphics and Netscape, however, Clark is one of Silicon Valley's few legitimate repeat winners. He's a confident man to begin with -- "I'm one of those men who would rather go down fighting than give in when I think I'm right (and I'll admit to thinking I'm right most of the time)" -- and his success steering Netscape through those turbulent IPO waters has certainly loosened his tongue. When "Netscape Time" is good, it's when Clark is being most frank, such as when he delivers his unvarnished impressions of venture capitalists (a species of capitalist he delights in calling "velociraptors") or former business colleagues, such as Ed McCracken, the CEO of Silicon Graphics who forced Clark out of his own company. Clark's best when he's most biased. You don't expect him to be fair.

And he does have reasons to be excited, as well as angry. While Clark occasionally overstates Netscape's role in making cyberspace safe for business -- "we owned the Internet," he says at one point, describing the night Netscape released its first browser -- he doesn't exaggerate by much. Netscape's rapid-fire release of new versions of its browser for free downloading from the Web really did rev forward the software product cycle to unheard-of speeds. Net veterans like to joke about the fast pace of "Internet time" -- Netscape, more than any other company, opened up that throttle. Life simply hasn't been the same since. Every company interested in doing business in the software marketplace has had to react, including Microsoft.

But Andrews rarely acknowledges Netscape's legitimate accomplishments. When Clark is mentioned, its usually in an unflattering light that makes him look like a hypocrite or a liar. In general, he makes very little attempt to give voice to alternative interpretations of the events he describes. These omissions are more troubling than Clark's bias, because Andrews is a reporter, not a participant.

So it's a good thing that Andrews prefaces "How the Web Was Won" with a disclaimer admitting that his explicit intent, as a reporter, is to tell his story from Microsoft's point of view. "People may wonder about the other side of the story," writes Andrews. "The question misses the point of the book, which is to explore the inner workings and consciousness of a company grappling with a new marketplace and defending itself against the threat of extinction in a highly competitive, ceaselessly evolving industry. My hope is that readers, in gaining an understanding of what makes Microsoft tick, will be better able to judge for themselves the validity of accusations facing the company."

It's a canny move because that single paragraph defends Andrews from the easiest critique of his book -- that "How the Web Was Won" is a blatantly obvious attempt to interpret every controversy involving Microsoft, the Internet and Netscape in the most favorable way possible for Microsoft. After reading "How the Web Was Won," the reader can be excused for wondering how Microsoft could possibly lose the antitrust trial -- there seems to be absolutely no evidence that the company did anything wrong whatsoever. Microsoft's biggest flaw, according to Andrews, was its own self-confidence, not its ruthless methods of doing business.

"A too-self-assured, can't-you-see-I'm right approach dealing with the industry at large sparked the most sweeping antitrust lawsuit since the Ma Bell breakup," writes Andrews. "If anything, Microsoft was victimized by its own success, was guilty of thinking it was always right because it usually was."

Microsoft certainly wasn't as clueless as its critics made it out to be. One of Andrews' most worthy contributions in "How the Web Was Won" is his detailed portrayals of the lower-level employees at Microsoft who did "get" the Internet. J. Allard's obsession with getting Microsoft to focus on the Internet rings true -- as does the account of Thomas Reardon's involvement with Internet standards organizations. The company did make significant technical contributions that helped everyday users get online. Andrews also enjoyed tremendous access to Microsoft employees, and certainly sifted through a ton of e-mail. Readers interested in gaining insight into how Microsoft works internally could certainly do worse than "How the Web Was Won."

But Andrews undermines his own argument by leaving out crucial parts of the story. The most glaring flaw is Andrews' astonishing failure to even consider the possibility that Microsoft's dominance of the operating system market could have given it an unfair advantage in the browser wars. "How the Web Was Won" does not once address the accusations leveled by various hardware vendors that Microsoft twisted arms to ensure that Internet Explorer would receive preferential inclusion on new computers.

People are lazy. If there's a browser already installed on their new computer -- free -- they'll likely use it, rather than go to the trouble of downloading another version. This has nothing to do with the quality of the browser or the "heroism" of Microsoft employees. Microsoft's share of the browser market would inevitably rise as consumers purchased new computers and started up the default browser. Is that enough to justify an antitrust trial? Perhaps not. But any book that purports to tell the story of "How the Web Was Won" must address this issue or look foolish.

Andrews, who co-authored a 1993 bestseller about Bill Gates titled "Gates," also never wonders why Microsoft's public profile has come under increasing attack in the public sphere. There are a few oblique references to "anti-Microsoft paranoia" -- but no willingness to contemplate the possibility that resentment of Microsoft's monopoly position is felt by a wider spectrum of people than just Microsoft's top business competitors. Sure, there is plenty of knee-jerk anti-Microsoft feeling coursing through the techno-culture -- the bigger and more profitable you are, the bigger a target you are. And Microsoft is as big as they come.

More books will undoubtedly be written about the birth of the Web, and the struggle between Netscape and Microsoft. "How the Web Was Won" and "Netscape Time" do advance the story from what has been publicly known before. Clark's firsthand account is worth looking at, if only because Clark refused to be interviewed for "Speeding the Net," Joshua Quittner and Michelle Slatalla's 1998 history of Netscape. And "How the Web Was Won" is valuable for precisely the reason that Andrews hoped -- you do get a sense of how Microsoft views the rest of the world, and how it sees every opportunity as a battlefield to be utterly dominated.

But "How the Web Was Won" will also aggravate many more readers than Clark's "Netscape Time." There was a reason why Net users flocked to the Netscape camp. However misplaced their allegiance may have been -- Netscape was guilty of many of the same sins as Microsoft, only on a smaller scale -- those excited new Web surfers were indeed looking for another hero. To veterans of the glorious early days of the Web, the very title "How the Web Was Won" will undoubtedly raise hackles and inspire gritted teeth. The battle isn't over, not by a long shot. Netscape may no longer be the leading candidate for the role of knight in shining armor, but the Net has plenty of other willing champions, ready to pick up a lance and charge into the fray. The conflict will no longer be called by the ungainly moniker of the "browser wars." But the carnage will undoubtedly continue.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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