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Meeting of the minds

The heads of the two most powerful companies in the Internet software world don't usually agree on much, but they do concur on one thing: Neither can dominate evolving standards if the Net is to survive as an open, competitive marketplace.

ORLANDO, Florida--The heads of the two most powerful companies in the Internet software world don't usually agree on much, but today they concurred on one thing: Neither can dominate evolving standards if the Net is to survive as an open, competitive marketplace.

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and Netscape Communications chief Jim Barksdale sat together on a panel discussion this morning at a Gartner Group symposium here. George Shaheen, managing patner of Andersen Consulting, and Carl Pascarella, President and CEO of Visa U.S.A., also participated.

Gates, Barksdale, and other industry leaders said the Net is fine today for disseminating static documents, but new technology, more mature standards, and a minimum of government interference are still needed if electronic commerce, corporate intranets, and business-to-business communications are to proliferate. And that means that no one technology provider can dominate for the Internet to reach its full potential.

"We won't dominate. I don't think anyone will," Barksdale said. "That's why the Internet works."

Gates echoed the sentiment: "No one will control the printing press of the future: the Internet." He added that current standards organizations, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force and the World Wide Web Consortium are doing a great job.

But it wasn't all harmony onstage. Barksdale didn't lose the opportunity to make a thinly veiled reference to archrival Microsoft's recent efforts to establish its ActiveX component technology as a widespread industry standard. "If certain people did dominate standards, it would be a big shift for everyone." Gates did say that Microsoft will continue to try to be first to bring proposed standards to committees like the IETF and W3C.

"Standards bodies can be tough, and there may be some games being played there, but we will continue to fight to push our standards," Barksdale countered.

Despite their very public competitive differences, Gates and Barksdale agreed with the general business principle that competition is good; it will keep the Internet healthy and will guarantee a steady flow of innovative products.

"If carried to extremes, competition can be self-destructive," said Barksdale. "I think we know when to work together."

As an example, he cited Microsoft's and Netscape's collaboration with Visa International to deploy the Secure Electronic Transaction (SET) protocols and software, expected to debut later this year, for performing secure credit card transactions over the Internet.

The so-called browser war isn't where Barksdale sees the bloodiest battles taking place, he says. Instead, he's much more concerned with the competition for server-based software for Web access, electronic commerce, email, and groupware. "Our primary competitors are Microsoft BackOffice and Lotus Development's Notes. That's where we get 80 percent of our revenues," he said.

Barksdale was also outspoken on the subject of government regulation of the Net. "I don't think that the government should be involved in the Internet, and I don't think the government should interfere with the export of encryption software."

Netscape and other vendors are highly critical of a current White House proposal expected to turn into law later this month, which would relax export restrictions on encryption in return for implementing key recovery technology so the government could have the option of "unlocking" encrypted files.