It’s a Competitive Internet World Out There…

(This column first appeared in the March 19, 1996 issue of PC Graphics Report)

The last few weeks have been fascinating, at least in terms of who’s been trying to beat whom to the punch with respect to Internet announcements and technologies.

The On-Line Service Browser War
First we have the war of Web browsers for use with proprietary on-line services, like CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy. Netscape fired the first shot by announcing both CompuServe and AOL have licensed custom versions of Netscape Navigator for their customers to download and use for Web access from these services. Then, AOL and Microsoft announce Microsoft’s Internet Explorer will be the default browser all 5,000,000 AOL customers will get, and in turn, Microsoft will start including AOL access software with all units of Windows 95 shipped (all tens of millions)—in complete competition with Microsoft Network (which Microsoft seems to be quietly putting aside anyhow). Now CompuServe and Prodigy are also rumored to be trying to get in on the action and get their service enrollment packages shipped with Windows 95.

Where does this leave Netscape? Netscape, while still having nearly 85% of the browser market, doesn’t have the same sort of PC penetration Microsoft potentially has with Windows 95, so that’s a big carrot Microsoft is successfully waving. Somewhat in Netscape’s favor, while AOL will have Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) as the default browser, users will be able to freely choose Netscape Navigator as an alternative to IE if they have the desire or need to do so – something Netscape can force to happen if they manage to keep one step ahead of Microsoft. That’ll be tough to do now that the behemoth has been riled. As far as other online service providers go, Netscape has a much tighter deal with CompuServe than with AOL. Who knows what’s up with Prodigy.

Regardless, perhaps the real winner in the online service Web browser wars appears not to be Microsoft or Netscape. It’s AOL. AOL shot up from nowhere a few years ago to become the most popular proprietary service, outpacing both CompuServe and Prodigy, as well as a number of smaller services on the verge of nonexistence. In addition to making news with Netscape and Microsoft, AOL also got an endorsement from AT&T and Ziff Davis’ ZDNet. AT&T will be offering sample AOL access to its new Internet  customers (the ones it’ll be gaining from its free 5 hours of monthly access for long distance customers, and the low monthly unlimited access fees they have instituted), while ZDNet will be establishing an information service on AOL comparable to what it has had on CompuServe for many years, first under the ZiffNet name, and now under ZDNet.

Font wars
Then there are the Web font wars. As we’ve reported in these pages, in the last couple of weeks, the Adobe/Netscape/Apple triad, Microsoft, and Bitstream all want to dominate the font mechanism Web designers will be using to create their pretty Web pages. Bitstream seems to have the best attitude – wait and see. Microsoft has a strong position,  especially since Internet Explorer 3.0 will ship with Microsoft’s proposed font support in the package. It’s not yet announced when Adobe’s solution will ship (although one  would assume it would be in Navigator 3.0). And Bitstream will just tag along.

Internet application APIs
Perhaps no one was more shocked than I that Microsoft finalized its Java license with Sun last week, and has announced it’s including complete Java and JavaScript support in IE 3.0. I expected Microsoft to continue along its merry way, insisting that VBScript was the only way to handle portable Web applications. Instead, Microsoft’s Java announcement made little mention of Visual Basic. Microsoft has made the brilliant decision (in my opinion) that supporting existing standards it doesn’t control is sometimes more important than trying to force its own proprietary solutions on people. That attitude is also more palatable to apprehensive users (myself among them).

The ActiveX rollout is perhaps a little overblown. Microsoft has basically taken the technology it has had out for sometime, massaged it a little, refocused it some, and poof, the result is ActiveX, a foundation for Internet application development. ActiveX differs from Java in that it has to be compiled for a given platform, whereas Java is interpreted. This makes ActiveX applications much faster, in terms of execution, but a lot less portable, since not every Web capable computer supports Microsoft’s ActiveX technology (which currently has extensive OS dependencies, including OLE). Java is not as limited in terms of portability, but the lessened performance of an interpreted language is a  serious issue. I should point out that the Microsoft termed “ActiveX Technologies” refers to a combination of APIs for ActiveX controls, ActiveMovie, and ActiveVRML.

Again, in terms of Netscape and Microsoft, Microsoft appears to be trying to put everything into IE 3.0 that Netscape currently offers in Netscape Navigator 2.0, plus lots more. This will certainly make it more difficult for Netscape to compete, unless Netscape can come up with some compelling new features that take the wind out of Microsoft’s sails.

Web 3D wars
The final Internet battle being fought currently is that of the 3D Web language, VRML. Microsoft, in an audacious move that alienated much of the VRML world, produced the ActiveVRML specification. I raised the question on the VRML mailing list last week of why this was not a trademark violation, but so far no one’s come up with anything. Next,  even though they offered ActiveVRML as their entry for VRML 2.0, Microsoft has not participated in the voluminous discussions on the same mailing list, debating the merits and detriments of the various VRML 2.0 contenders. This was deemed as another snub of the VRML community. Then, to top things off, SGI and Netscape actually finally beat Microsoft at its game, namely with PR and the Moving Worlds announcement last month. Moving Worlds looks like it’s well on its way to becoming VRML 2.0, and Microsoft appears poised to ignore what a community has decided upon and go its own way in order to maintain control, even if it means it has to do battle with an industry standard. (see my other column for CAD++VRML, Microsoft & VRML, for more background on this topic)

I think Microsoft is still behind in the Web War, but closing ranks fast. Its approach and arrogance on the VRML front was a major blunder, but they are trying to patch things up to some extent. The AOL deal is a major win, and the technology they’ve promised for IE 3.0 can put Microsoft on the top, if they deliver.

On a final note, one industry weekly columnist recently posed the question: “Is Netscape Navigator 2.0 the real Win95 killer application?” In my case it is. I was happily running a blend of DOS and Win3.1 until recently. Now I’ve been forced to use Win95 because I’m doing Java related R&D, and Java is not yet supported under Win3.1. I wonder how many other people have found Netscape Navigator 2.0 to be the reason they finally switched to Win95? I can’t say I like Win95. It still crashes on me, just like Win3.1 did. It takes forever to boot on my system. And some of my old Win3.1 applications no longer work. Oh, and did I mention it’s also noticeably slower than Win3.1 was?

Win95, you can’t live with it, and (because of Java) you can’t live without it.