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Oracle, Netscape play down spat

Oracle and Netscape are shrugging off reports of a public spat between their CEOs.

Oracle (ORCL) and Netscape Communications (NSCP) are shrugging off published reports of a spat between their CEOs, although the story does bring to the surface the barely submerged fact that the two companies have never been in love with each other despite licensing agreements and public partnerships.

The report of the spat stemmed from public comments made in Paris a couple of weeks ago by Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison about Netscape's future. In the Financial Times article, Ellison was quoted as saying Netscape has "no chance of surviving," extrapolating on his theory that companies won't need browsers on a desktop but will work from "thin clients" connected to a server.

When the Financial Times asked Netscape Chief Executive Jim Barksdale for a response, he retorted that maybe Ellison was trying to pull down Netscape's stock price before making an acquisition offer.

A Netscape representative said today that Barksdale's comment about the acquisition was made in jest. "Jim said he didn't understand why Larry continues to make these provocative statements and then added as a joke that maybe he wanted to buy us," spokeswoman Jennifer O'Mahony said.

At Oracle, Ellison's PR handlers didn't want to comment at all.

But Netscape said that although it doesn't exactly appreciate the comments, Ellison's public jeering is not to be taking too seriously.

"Larry has been making colorful comments about other players in the industry for years," O'Mahony said. "He's able to do deals and run business behind the scene but then goes out publicly with these colorful comments because he knows it'll be picked up by the press...We're not happy about it."

O'Mahony notes that the companies are working to support each other's efforts. She pointed to Netscape's announcement just two days ago that it would support Oracle Network Computer Architecture, a framework for developing the thin clients that Ellison was promoting when he made his initial jab at Netscape. The two have also struck several other alliances, primarily intended to present a united front against Microsoft.

Still, the Financial Times report did underscore the long-standing fact that a number of barbs have been traded between the professedly friendly Netscape and Oracle.

Ellison said at a press conference earlier this year announcing the Network Computer Reference Platform that he was worried that Netscape is becoming as powerful as Microsoft. Another Oracle executive told CNET last month that he suspected Netscape would be acquired or merge with another company in 12 months. At the time, he added that it wouldn't be with Oracle because of bad blood between Ellison and Netscape's Marc Andreessen, senior vice president of technology for Netscape.

Netscape has also named Oracle competitor Informix as its database vendor of choice.

Stay tuned for the next episode of this ongoing soap opera.