David Hudson on Tue, 21 Apr 1998 06:30:31 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> The Browser Wars

Those who've been following Nettime closely may remember that last
Thursday, April 16, was declared the first International Browser Day, which
was celebrated with gusto in Amsterdam. Of the handful of events, by far
the most exhilarating was the presentation of thirty-eight (38!!) browsers
designed by students from the Sandburg Instituut and the Gerrit
Rietveldakademie in Amsterdam and the Hageschool voor de Kunsten in Utrecht.

Even though the students' presentations were limited to three minutes
(there was even a gong), if you allow for the moment or two of transition
and do the math, you'll realize the whole extravaganza took quite a while
-- but was never, ever boring. Far from it. These young designers, who were
told to go ahead and put technical feasibility low on their list of
priorities and instead let their imaginations run wild, presented argument
after argument for the desperate need for geeks and designers to mingle
more often.

The ideas were striking, fresh and literally drew ooh's and ahh's from the
jury and the audience.

I was asked to give a talk, a brief historical overview of the browser wars
which served as a sort of intermission. For many of us, there's nothing new
here, but in a few years, we'll have forgotten most or all of it, and this
summary might be convenient -- or just quaint. Nonetheless, several
suggested I post it, so here 'tis...


The Browser Wars

I can't remember whether it's an urban legend I picked up somewhere off the
Net, or if it's a scene from a movie or a Monty Python sketch seen years
ago, but someone, somewhere planted this image in my mind: In a
conveniently distant southeast Asian country, two trucks have pulled over
on opposite sides of the road, one red with the universally recognizable
white wave gently rolling along its side, and the now officially "classic"
cursive lettering spelling out "Coca-Cola"; the other, red, white and blue,
featuring another variation on the wave: the Pepsi truck.

The drivers, each wearing the uniform of their designated cola, have gotten
out to take cover behind their trucks and are actually firing real weapons
with real bullets at each other. The Cola Wars, taken to their absurd
extreme. Coke and Pepsi, battling it out, street by street for territory,
just like the nation states, religions, kingdoms and tribes before them.

The scene is in fact so absurd that I seriously doubt it ever took place,
but the Cola Wars, of course, are real. In the 80s, two books from two
authors came out bearing "The Cola Wars" in their titles, and they
documented the strategies and battle plans, successes and failures, and
above all, the personalities driving the silly but nonetheless not
inconsequential narrative.

Throughout human history, the glue that has held armies together is
loyalty. Soldiers are at least meant, anyway, to be motivated to put their
lives on the line out of loyalty to something higher than themselves --
their king, their god, their fellow countrymen or to an abstract ideal such
as democracy or 'the revolution'. At some point after the Industrial
Revolution and the triumph of capitalism, another loyalty was added to the
list: brand loyalty.

I want to believe that that shootout in the southeast Asian country never
actually happened, that humans are sane enough to realize that there's
nothing behind the names and logos of Coke and Pepsi other than brown sugar
water. And that when we talk about the Cola Wars, or when G. Wayne Miller
writes a book called _Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between G.I. Joe, Barbie
and the Companies That Make Them_, we can take comfort in the fact that
we're merely being sensationally metaphorical.

Not to distract from the reality that real wars with real casualties and
spilt blood are indeed fought for profits, but at least we pretend higher
ideals are at stake. We disguise our lust for Kuwait's oil, for example, as
a willingness to smart bomb the hell out of Baghdad in the name of national

But what, then, is actually at stake in the metaphorical wars between
brands and their loyalists? Not physical, geographical territory to be won
street by street, bridge by bridge, of course, but: market share. And
though it represents real money, market share is an intangible abstract,
and so are the weapons used to win it.

To win the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers, you have to create
a clear perception of your product and of the company behind it. Just watch
how vehemently Mattel fights for the image of Barbie to get an idea of just
how vital such perceptions are. Mattel walks a thin line with Barbie, of
course, trying to sell a sex object to children. But it's obviously an
incredibly effective formula.

Of course she's sexy, but it's a good, clean -- clean to the point of
sterility -- sort of sexy, and she would never engage in the sort of acts
she's depicted engaging in on more than a few Web sites out there. So
Mattel will fight tooth and nail to keep the delicately balanced equation
from tilting to either side, even risking the image of the company for the
sake of the image of the product. Mattel has done the math. Barbie comes
first, before her maker.

Now, even though there are countless Web browsers out there, when we talk
about the browser wars, we are, of course, talking about the battle between
Netscape and Microsoft. During the middle phase of this battle in
particular, the wars were strangely interesting because the situations the
two companies faced were practically inverse mirrors of each other.

At the starting line, Netscape had an incredibly strong product and has
been struggling ever since to build up a company around it. Microsoft, of
course, already had one helluva strong company, but almost missed the boat
when it found itself late in the game without its own version of what just
about everybody at the time thought was the killer app -- the Web browser.

But let's step back and briefly review the events that led to all-out war.
Back in 1993, Marc Andreessen and his team of students at the University of
Illinois in Urbana cooked up Mosaic, the first fully graphical Web browser.
In 1994, Andreesen, Jim Clark, and eventually, Jim Barksdale, founded the
company called Netscape.

Already, eyebrows were being raised across the Net. Mosaic had been free.
Would future versions of Netscape be? The spirit, ideals and what was left
of the reality of the separate gift economy that had flourished on the Net
for years was eroding fast. It wasn't the first time a company had been
founded on successful freeware, but it was certainly the biggest time.

As if to punctuate the browser's crossover from a hack just for the fun of
it to major Wall Street player, in 1995, Netscape launched one of the most
successful initial public offerings in Net history, turning Andressen and
crew into overnight millionaires.

>From Wall Street to Wired, analysts were convinced that the Web was the
future, and by manufacturing the window of choice onto it -- at the time,
Netscape held about an 85% to 90% market share -- Netscape was perceptually
synonymous with the Web.

It wasn't just that anyone browsing the Web was already exposed to the
throbbing "N" in the corner of their eye. Whatever page you happened to be
looking at, the title bar introduced it first with "Netscape" and a colon.

Hollywood producers, directors, actors and all their agents claw at each
other relentlessly over first screen credits. Multimillion dollar movie
deals have fallen through over such quarrels. It's about perception, and
Netscape didn't have to fight anybody for it.

"Netscape presents: Wired News"; "'Nettime' brought to you by Netscape";
"Netscape presents: Justin's Links to the Underground", "Free Adult Pics",
"Your cousin and his dog", "Netscape presents: The world."

And where was Microsoft all this time? Completely absorbed in getting
Windows 95 out on time, and when they finally did, making as big a hoopla
about it as possible. When that party was over, Bill Gates suddenly
realized he'd been left behind. Windows 95 met with the usual
not-as-good-as-the-Mac criticism, but sold reasonably well. Didn't matter.
All eyes were on the Web. Web-related IPOs were popping off like the corks
off champagne bottles on the Titanic, and Microsoft wasn't there.
Perception was against him.

Gates dashed off an internal memo, whipped his company into a frenzy to
come up with some sort of Internet strategy and then, in December 1995, put
on a show. What exactly was presented? Again, it didn't matter. As Gates
put it himself, "I just want them to get that we're hardcore about the
Internet." It worked. He'd created the perception he needed.

It's interesting to note that the browser wars almost didn't happen. Back
in April 1995, Netscape's Clark and Barksdale talked to Microsoft about
Microsoft possibly buying a ten to twenty percent share in Netscape. One
the one hand, this might not have precluded Microsoft's cooking up Internet
Explorer, and on the other hand, if it had, we'd have simply skipped the
wars and gone straight to the near-monopoly situation we're all so worried
about now.

Regardless, the wars began, and they have been ugly, and there have been
many casualties. With each successive version of the companies' browsers,
from the 1.0's to the 4.0's, the programs have been bigger, but hardly
better. The wars have forced the companies to release versions faster and
faster, and as one programmer told me, "You whip them out that fast, and
that code starts to get awfully shaky."

Worse, it gets bloated. The companies piled on the extras, from the email
and news readers to applets and plug-ins and some strange nonsense about
channels. Web designers hated most of the doodads, hated having to keep up
with each successive version, hated having to design sites for two
different sets of browsers, the most recent and "legacy" versions included,
and hated their clients for being so damn wowed with all the bells and
whistles and demanding that their sites feature the latest and the

And the users, of course, were frazzled. It could take hours on a 14.4
modem to download the latest versions, but you needed them to access half
the Web, it seemed. Each little "Download Netscape 4.0 Now!" or "Best
viewed with Internet Explorer 4.0" button seemed like a slap in the face if
you weren't yet up to snuff. Netscape in particular required oodles of RAM,
too, meaning that some users -- like me -- had to run out and buy a new
computer. And a new modem.

In general, and still speaking of perceptions, the Web was becoming less
and less the people's medium it had originally been touted as. Only a
professional Web designer is considered capable of creating a site worth
viewing anymore. Exceptions such as community and game sites aside, the
browser wars were turning the Web into an all-but one-way medium.

Meanwhile, another serious blow to the many-to-many free-for-all was
brewing. Microsoft knew the early versions of its Internet Explorer were no
match for Netscape's browsers, which by the way, were coming out in a
confusing array of bunches named Communicator, Navigator and any
combination of those with the word "Gold".

So Microsoft resorted to the standby strategy of any town bully: Play
dirty. Pulling its economic clout, Microsoft struck exclusive deals with
content providers such as the Wall Street Journal and commercial online
services such as AOL to get the Internet Explorer icon any and everywhere.
It began strongarming computer manufacturers to include Internet Explorer,
and Netscape asserts, to exclude Netscape.

The list of dirty deeds is too long to tick off here, but by far the most
serious blow to Netscape was dealt in 1996 when Microsoft let it be known
that it planned to integrate its browser into Windows 98. The twist of the
knife? When Microsoft started integrating in a series of releases of
Windows 95.

But this is when Microsoft started running into trouble. Most agree that
Netscape had all along been playing the only card it had, slipping reports
of Microsoft's abuses of power along to the US Justice Department. Some
argue that with or without Netscape, Microsoft was behaving so blatantly,
Bill Gates was destined for a run-in with Attorney General Janet Reno.

The case itself may or may not have any direct legal consequences, at least
for quite a while, which is too long in Web years to make much of a dent in
the current re-balancing of power and market share. As with most legal
processes, the case is loaded with sideshows. Microsoft says you can't
separate Windows and Explorer, then goes ahead and says they'll do it
themselves anyway; Larry Lessig is in, then he's out; Bill Gates stands up
Ralph Nader but then goes to Washington, and so on.

No immediate consequences. Except one. Perception. The monopoly accusation
is beginning to stick, so much so, that Business Week's cover story last
week wondered out loud whether or not it's time to break Microsoft up, as
AT&T was broken up years ago.

All the while, there's been some major action on the market share front.
It's about half and half now, and earlier this year, Jim Barksdale was
suggesting Netscape's share could fall to the 10% to 20% range. What was
happening? The logic of monopoly. People aren't scared to death of being
rendered incompatible, so they go with the upperdog, even if his products
are inferior. For Microsoft, and certainly not for the first time, this is
the upside of being perceived as a ruthless monopolist.

Naturally, Barksdale added to his comments he wasn't worried; after all,
10% to 20% of a growing market is nothing to sneeze at. But his act didn't
cover the reality that Netscape's profits and stock value were sinking and
that he himself laid off a serious chunk of his work force earlier this

In fact, Netscape started out in 1998 looking pretty doomed. But then the
most amazing thing happened. In March, Marc Andreessen announced that it
would be releasing the source code for Communicator 5.0. The move was so
stunning, some labeled it an act of desperation, a sort of last gasp before
dying, while others let out nearly audible whoops of glee on mailing lists
across the Net.

The move also made Eric Raymond an overnight net.star. Netscape readily
admits sitting up and paying close attention to Raymond's essay, "The
Cathedral and the Bazaar".

Raymond's argument essentially boils down to this: Hire a bunch of
programmers to write a piece of software they may or may not care about,
keep the whole project under wraps and a nifty code name until its
released, and you end up with a clunky program.

Release the source code, however, to a vast ocean of hackers and
programmers eager write and rewrite it because they either love the idea of
the program or just love hacking code, and the thing just gets better and
better. More importantly, it gets more and more reliable, and this is key
to Raymond's thinking.

Most software is not a product at all. It's a service. That's why
reliability counts more than anything, including brand loyalty, by the way.
If Raymond is right, Netscape and Microsoft have been fighting the wrong
war all along. Good thing they never started shooting each other.


Postscript: From Andrew Leonard's interview with Eric Raymond in Salon:

                      "Netscape doing this creates a window of
                       opportunity for us to get our message into
                       corporate boardrooms. The flip side of that
                       is that if Netscape tanks, no one is going
                       to listen to us for another decade."




David Hudson        REWIRED        http://www.rewired.com

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