Browser users and Internet software developers alike cheered today's decision by Netscape Communications to offer its Navigator browser free of charge and to make available the source code for the next generation of Communicator.
The decision to stop charging for the browser was widely expected, as the company has fought to maintain its market share, which has been slipping steadily to Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser.
Netscape's corporate customers expressed support for the move not only because it will save IT dollars, but also because it signals that the company has not yet cried "uncle" in its struggles with Microsoft.
"I was not surprised to hear the news," said John Charters, vice president of Internet services for US West, whose 45,000 employees use the Netscape browser and SuiteSpot server software. "I understand Netscape's need to protect its base and to begin a fair competition on features."
The move also allows information technology departments more leeway in choosing a browser for their companies. "I think Netscape has always had, in my opinion, better features," said Charters. "Our IT organization had made a commitment to Netscape and the SuiteSpot Server--this only makes the decision easier."
Netscape's decision today has made at least one IT professional's job more difficult. "It really makes it tougher for us now," said Joel Graves, director of client solutions for Chiron, a Bay Area biotech firm and Netscape customer that must decide this year which browser it will use for the 2,500 systems being upgraded this year.
"It takes the financial decision away, and makes it more of a technology decision: Java vs. ActiveX implementation for our intranet," Graves added. "I do think that the people that are already using Netscape are going to stay Netscape."
But the decision to make the Communicator source code available came as more of a surprise to developers--a pleasant surprise.
"I'm thinking it's the biggest thing to hit the free software community since Linux distribution came about in the early '90s," said one Bay Area software developer. "You're starting out with an industrial-strength browser and now you have many qualified developers working from it. I imagine Netscape's developer teams can't compete with Microsoft in terms of resources, but with Netscape working with outside developers, I think you're going to wind up with a very good product."
"This is very, very important," said Peter Jackson, president and CEO of Intraware, a systems integration firm. "The thing about the browser war is that from a tech standpoint, it's been pretty boring. You're going to start seeing some innovative browsers."
Jackson said that the free source code will allow developers to add "all kinds of quoting capabilities, pricing capabilities, and e-commerce capabilities that Netscape wasn't going to get around to doing on their own."
"This makes a huge difference," agreed one participant in the newsgroup "comp.infosystems.www.browsers.ms-windows." "Developers will flock to Netscape since they can fix particular bugs or customize it to their purpose. A rash of new and wonderful features will explode onto the scene...Because of that explosion of features in Netscape, it will soon surpass any other proprietary browser."
Another participant in the same newsgroup also predicted that the decision would boost Netscape in the browser war.
"Netscape is willing to show what they have. Microsoft is not. Who do you trust?" he wrote. "Microsoft will never match this move."
The announcement also played well in consumer circles.
One consultant, whose clients include small Internet service providers, said, "I think a lot of them are going to go back to Netscape. I know several ISP owners that don't like IE at all, but were forced to go with it because they didn't want to pay."
But another observer suggested that Netscape may be offering its browser at the right price, but too late.
"Netscape made a big blunder in the first place by starting to charge money for it," he wrote. "If they never did that, they would still be in good shape. It's easier to hold onto market share than to claw it back."