War is where strength survives, to paraphrase The Art of War. It is that defining moment when the course of history can be changed according to the winner’s wishes. The Cold War was a struggle over the course of world eventsthe only difference being the lack of crackling artillery. After an enormous cash outlay to fight such a war, the effect was the same on both sides: enormous debts. When one country, the U.S.S.R., fell on desperate times, the war was over.
Now a new cold war has begunonly this one is taking place entirely on the West Coast of the United States, and it’s rooted in sheer capitalism. It will not take place across diplomatic borders; instead, the battleground is a tangle of wires connecting computers all over the world. The parties fighting this cold war seek to control the fate of the Internet.
The two combatants: monolithic Microsoft and a young, vibrant upstart known as Netscape Corporation. Netscape makes a piece of software that lets the Internet user “browse” the Internet’s World Wide Web. Already, Netscapewith partner Sun Microsystemshas taken a wide lead.
The World Wide Web is still a place in search of an identity. Financial transactions are, at best, unsafe over this new medium, and it’s still uncertain whether people would actually buy over the Web if given the choice. Standards regarding graphics and layout are being madeand brokenalmost daily. It is a place that drastically needs a leading-edge product to show the way.
Microsoft is no stranger to leading the pack with its software. Windows, the erstwhile program that lets users point-and-click to their minds’ content, has a user base many times that of other operating systems. The company’s newest operating system, Windows 95, is steadily climbing in popularity and has already attained bestseller status.
So it came as no big surprise to many analysts when Microsoft CEO Bill Gates took the podium at a midweek press conference last week to extol the virtues of a “connected” societyand to lay out Microsoft’s battle plan. First, Microsoft wants to tip its hat to the established leader, Netscape. It will license a computer languagecalled Javafrom Sun Microsystems and include it in future versions of Microsoft’s own browser.
The thought of Microsoft actually admitting defeat in this area is a bit shocking. The company has always been known as a standard-setter, not a follower. But with Netscape’s seemingly bulletproof following, Microsoft’s latest announcement represents perhaps its smartest Internet move to date.
Second, Microsoft has proposed changes in the Web’s root language, HTML. Among these changes are things already in the latest version of Microsoft’s browser, Internet Explorer. If these proposals are accepted, they would have to be incorporated into Netscape’s browser as well.
Third, Microsoft wants to set its own standards in two areas: Web programming and transactions. The company wants Netscape to accept Microsoft’s own yet-to-be developed method of transferring money over the Internet. This is bound to cause a little strife, since Netscape has had its own method for almost a year now.
Microsoft also wants other computer companies to accept its OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) technology as the standard program for applications on the World Wide Web. The company developed OLE on its own, and, aside from a few programs that assist in translation, it runs solely on Microsoft software.
Critics charge that allowing Microsoft to put its stamp on everything is a dangerous concession. Still others say that OLE just doesn’t work well, that it’s bloated and takes up too much computer memory. All the criticism falls on deaf ears at Microsoftwhich is now a company with a job to do. “The Internet is a way to help us accomplish our mission,” Gates says. “A computer in every home.”
A mere two hours after the announcement, the stock market responded: Netscape’s formerly stellar stock dropped 10 points. Netscape officials are unfazed, however. They even, at one point, threw down the gauntlet in bolder language than ever before. “If Microsoft wants a war,” a Netscape spokeman said, “we’ll give them one.”
One final note: It has been said that in war there are no winners. Just a thought.
If you’d like to find out more about this week’s Internet battle, visit both competitors and see for yourself. For Microsoft, jump to http://www.microsoft.com/, and for Netscape, try http://home.netscape.com/.
Joel Moses can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.