An End to the Browser Wars?

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If you need any proof that the days when Netscape was synonymous with the World Wide Web are long gone, look no further than a story about the browser developer that hit the newswires earlier this month. Reuters reported that AOL Time Warner had decided to reposition its Netscape unit as a media company.

A high-tech company changing its focus is hardly uncommon, especially these days. But what's interesting about the news that Netscape will de-emphasize browser development is how little reaction it's provoked from the public.

That's a far cry from Netscape's glory years. Back in 1995, the company's eponymous Web browser enjoyed an 80 percent market share of the Web-surfing audience. Netscape has also informally received credit -- or blame -- for inventing the concept of "Internet time," courtesy of its rapid product development cycle. In 1995, Netscape released three versions of its browser, thus setting the pace for the "browser wars" it waged with Microsoft through the rest of the 1990s.

Today, however, Netscape has ceded much of the Web-surfing crowd to Microsoft Internet Explorer. For Mac users, the browser field has even expanded beyond Internet Explorer and Netscape to include OmniWeb -- the default favorite for Mac OS X users -- as well as the slimmer, rigorously standards-compliant Opera and iCab browsers.

So what happened to Netscape to make it almost a footnote in the Mac browser arena?

It's easy to point the finger at AOL, which swallowed up Netscape in 1999. "I don't really understand why they bought Netscape at all," wrote Mozilla founder and open source advocate Jamie Zawinski on his Web site. "Maybe it was simply to prevent the Netcenter portal (the monstrosity that the Netscape home page had become) from competing with AOL."

If that's the case, AOL's strategy for Netscape appears to be media-driven rather than software-driven. Former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale indicated as much back in 1999, when he explained the AOL/Netscape merger. "The Internet is a powerful, interactive network that can span radio and television programming," Barksdale said. "It is very exciting to be a part of this."

Although AOL will continue to build Netscape as a Web destination rather than a tool, the browser itself may enjoy a moderate burst of attention now that the company's on-again, off-again talks with Microsoft over a license for embedding Internet Explorer as AOL's default browser have broken down.

Unsurprisingly, the Netscape browser wasn't a sticking point in negotiations. A spat over another type of Internet software caused the impasse -- instant messaging. AOL, which owns the popular instant-messaging software ICQ, refused to make its application compatible with the rival Windows Messaging from Microsoft.

The companies' willingness to ignore the browser war and focus on other software signals a shift in the battle lines for user share among all sorts of networked technologies. AOL Time Warner is also in the midst of making deals to install Netscape as the default browser on Sony's PlayStation 2 and Gateway's Touch Pad. While Microsoft hasn't commented publicly on which Web browser it may load on its Xbox game console, odds are high that it will be Internet Explorer.

Although the battle for eyeballs may be shifting, Mac Web surfers might still wonder what alternatives there are to Internet Explorer beyond Netscape. Both Opera and iCab have preview versions of their browsers available for download. Meanwhile, OmniGroup recently released OmniWeb 4.0.1, a browser that runs natively in OS X. OmniWeb has attracted a great deal of attention on the forums, where many users laud the browser's look-and-feel while others cite some nagging performance issues.

(An OS X-native version of Microsoft's browser -- Internet Explorer 5.1 -- is available in beta form.)

Oliver Joppich, who handles customer support for iCab, says his company has already built an OS X-native version of its browser but contends that "Apple must improve OS X before the great majority of Mac users will use [the operating system]."

At any rate, don't expect other browser makers to worry about Netscape's shifting focus. "Netscape is not important for Web browsers anymore," Joppich says. "They lost against Internet Explorer so they had to change their focus. We just want to make the best browser."

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