Originally Published: Tuesday, 3 August 1999 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

The Twisted Pair: Netscape and Linux

It's world domination fast. Linux is poised to decimate the software industry in one instant master stroke. Right? Wrong. In this piece, I'm going to examine how this attitude in part lead to the downfall of a software company that is familiar to all of us. They were young, they were hip, they were the new darlings of the press, and some of them got rich along the way. Yup, they were quite a sensation... they even revolutionized the Internet. Where are they now? Oh, they were recently acquired by America Online. Ouch....


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It's world domination fast. Linux is poised to decimate the software industry in one instant master stroke. Right? Wrong. In this piece, I'm going to examine how this attitude in part lead to the downfall of a software company that is familiar to all of us. They were young, they were hip, they were the new darlings of the press, and some of them got rich along the way. Yup, they were quite a sensation... they even revolutionized the Internet. Where are they now? Oh, they were recently acquired by America Online. Ouch.

You help me do this to you.

Yes, I am referring to Netscape Communications. To me, the folks at Netscape epitomized what was possible with a bit of inspiration and a lot of perspiration. For awhile, even mighty mighty Microsoft was trembling at the up-start rebels in Mountain View. To this day, Netscape is the Internet to many people. What went so terribly wrong?

It's easy to look back and try to critique the past. I have too much respect for the people at Netscape to try and say they should have gone left instead of right. Instead, I want to analyze some of the things that happened in the hopes that the Linux camp avoids making some of the same mistakes.

Let's start a little bit prior to the NSCP IPO. Like some of the upcoming Linux IPO's, Netscape was red hot. Suddenly, everyone was talking about the "Information Superhighway." There was major money to be made, especially if one could get in on the Friends and Family options. The humorous e-mail below demonstrates how desperate people were to get in on the action. It should be fairly obvious to see the parallels to the RHAT IPO.

From: cate_corcoran@macweek.ziff.com
Subject: FWD Netscape IPO Fun
Date: Wed, 16 Aug 1995
To: gary@wired.com

...

Caller: How can I get on this "Friends of Netscape" stock list?
Finance: Do you have any connection to Netscape?
Caller: I just heard about the information superhighway. I was told Netscape was a user-friendly browser, so I want to be on the "Friends of Netscape" stock list.
Finance: Dah.....

...

--- HotWired: Net Soup

Indeed NSCP was a classic Internet IPO. There were more than a few paper millionaires running around and feeling unstoppable. They were moving so fast they would make Microsoft irrelevant in a couple of years. The browser was a new platform, and with Java embedded inside, how could they possibly lose? NSCP was ready to change the software paradigm. Check out this revealing quote from Marc Andreessen:

"The rules of the game have changed," says Andreessen. "It used to be that to dominate, you had to control the software business. Today, you have to open up your work and contribute it to the industry."

--- Wired 4.02

Sound anything like the arguments from an open source advocate? Let's burrow a bit deeper into the internals of Netscape, which we can glimpse from Jamie W. Zawinski's start-up diary.

Similar Dissimilarities

Mr. Zawinski, more commonly known as JWZ, is net-famous for Lucid Emacs, Netscape/Mozilla, and about:jwz. The last time I read through his web site, something struck a chord within me. A sense of Deja Vu was haunting me. The more I thought about it, the more parallels I could see to another programmer by the name of Geoff Harrison a.k.a. Mandrake.

Mandrake is known to many as one of the architects of the Enlightenment project, which is beginning the metamorphosis from an industrial strength window manager into a desktop environment. Currently he is a Senior Software Engineer at VA Linux Labs, where he is pushing the limits of the Linux GUI. JWZ says, "you can divide our industry into two kinds of people: those who want to go work for a company to make it successful, and those who want to go work for a successful company". Clearly Mandrake, like JWZ once was, is there to make his startup a success.

Both of these men are hackers in the traditional use of the word. It's not hard to imagine them entrenched in front of a *NIX box, fingers pounding away at some obscure algorithm. Eventually, even the "mainstream" media begins to take notice. Check out these quotes on getting some unexpected coverage:

Mandrake: "so the fortune article in question in the July 5 issue is out. Look for it at newstands everywhere. Unfortunately I look stoned off my gourd in that pic, but I suppose they liked that image. bleh."

JWZ: "Oh, I just found out that my picture was in this month's Wired, which has a gushing article about us. I look like a complete dork. I can just hear mom's reaction: `What have you done to your hair? You look like a complete dork.' "

The parallels between Linux, Netscape, and the people surrounding them seem to be everywhere. So how can we prevent a fate like Netscape's from happening to Linux?

It's survival of the fittest...

Netscape had several problems which lead to the erosion of their marketshare. First, they underestimated the determination of Microsoft. No one expected that Microsoft would be able to re-tool all of their products to be Internet aware, or for them to integrate a quality web browser directly into their Operating System. Second, they were so flush with success that they scoffed at America Online. AOL initially approached Netscape with a deal to integrate Netscape Navigator into the AOL client, bringing Netscape to millions of desktops. Netscape seemed to believe that AOL wasn't a very important potential customer and didn't bend over backwards to make any concessions to America Online. This was exactly the vulnerability that Microsoft was waiting for.

They approached AOL and did anything possible to get Internet Explorer into the hands of AOL's subscribers. The terms of the deal were too good for Steve Case to turn down. To me, this was the turning point in the browser wars. From this point on, Netscape's market share never recovered from their downward spiral. What a cruel joke it is now to think that by not making that deal with AOL, Netscape would not only lose the browser war, but eventually be bought out by AOL. As of this writing, America Online still uses Internet Explorer.

Netscape seemed to lose some of that feverish startup culture along the way as well. They didn't seem to have the same focus and dedication, it all peaked somewhere around Netscape 3.0. Maybe they got too big too fast, or they were more concerned with corporate image at the expense of a creative environment. JWZ says, "the company stopped innovating. The company got big, and big companies just aren't creative. There exist counterexamples to this, but in general, great things are accomplished by small groups of people who are driven, who have unity of purpose. The more people involved, the slower and stupider their union is".

Netscape isn't completely dead. Many of us are cheering on the Open Source Mozilla project, which until recently was led by JWZ, but the excitement just isn't there anymore. Most of the trade press has moved on to covering the Linux movement.

An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of code.

Linux startups such as Red Hat, VA Linux, Caldera and others will be getting infusions of investments. They will have to be wary to keep a culture in which traditional open source hackers can continue to flourish. Middle management will have to be kept to the bare minimum. They also have to make sure to keep the community as a whole happy. Without the internal hackers and the external community, these companies won't have much of a product or service to sell.

We've seen this already with Rasterman, the other half of the Enlightenment duo. He quit Redhat after a disagreement with management and now works for VA Linux. The fact that there is more than one Linux company out there is going to create an atmosphere of competiveness to keep hackers and the community happy.

This is definitely a positive situation, however these companies will also have to keep a close eye on external competition like Microsoft. The Linux community as a whole tends to discount and underestimate Microsoft all the time. Netscape underestimated AOL and Microsoft, and we can't afford not to learn from these mistakes.

Linux's strength lies in its diversity. If one of our companies goes down, another one will be there to take its place. Ultimately one of them will take on the challenge of penetrating the desktop market. When that is the case, they need to be very responsive to the needs of the "average" consumer. They can't let themselves go the way of Netscape who turned their nose up at AOL. Microsoft wins because they cater to the need of the average consumer.

Linux can cater to both the so called "computer elite" as well as the average joe who just wants to surf the web and send some e-mail to his mother. If we don't meet the needs of both, I don't see Linux going all the way to its full potential. If we take heed of some of the problems that happened in the past, I think we can take Linux and free software beyond all of our expectations. -- mim

Matt Michie is a Computer Science student living in the deserts of New Mexico, USA. He welcomes comments on his writing and can be reached at mmichie@linux.com. He maintains a web site at http://web.nmsu.edu/~mmichie.





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