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Netscape book details browser war

The new book, Speeding the Net, claims to offer the inside story of Netscape and how it challenged Microsoft.

Tech Industry

As far back as 1995, Netscape Communications quietly began investigating the legality of Microsoft's business practices and had contact with the Justice Department about its nemesis, according to a newly published book on the software maker.

Speeding the Net claims to offer the inside story of Netscape and how it challenged Microsoft. It is written by Joshua Quittner, computer columnist for Time magazine, and Michelle Slatalla, who writes a technology column for the New York Times.

Much of the initial investigating rested with Roberta Katz, Netscape's general counsel. Like chief executive Jim Barksdale, Katz previously worked at McCaw Cellular.

Shortly after she joined Netscape, Katz was contacted by the Justice Department about Microsoft.

"The government's lawyers said they were investigating whether the Microsoft Network, scheduled to launch in conjunction with Windows 95, would violate antitrust law," the book says. At that time, federal regulators clearly were more focused on MSN than on the browser market, it adds.

At the same time, it adds, Katz began to hear "disturbing anecdotes from Netscape's sales staff and other employees about how Microsoft was trying to gain market share in the browser industry."

One of them, according to a Netscape customer: Microsoft "gave me a deal that I couldn't refuse. Free dialer, browser, developer's kit, free distributable, etc. ...I know Netscape is better, but $0 vs. $18K is impossible to beat."

The book says Katz contacted Netscape's law firm, Winson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, to inform the Justice Department of Microsoft's strategy. That resulted in a letter, later made public, that was sent to the government by the law firm.

A spokeswoman for Microsoft couldn't See related story: 
Microsoft pilloried in tell-all comment on the incident's portrayal in the book because she hadn't yet seen a copy. However, Microsoft has maintained that its business practices are perfectly legal, and has denied any wrongdoing in the antitrust legal battle in which it is currently involved.

The book chronicles the software giant's business strategy from its launch. It includes tales of how the company's marketing team once considered naming its Communicator product "Collaborator." Netscape dropped the idea after someone pointed out that it "would be a terrible name for a product in many European countries, where a collaborator meant someone who had worked with the Nazis in World War II."

It also offers a behind-the-scenes look at Netscape's recent "freeware" strategy. One of them: a posting on an internal company bulletin board by Jamie Zawinksi that said, "Since the client version of the browser no longer seemed to have much value in the marketplace, why not reveal its source code to the world?" Netscape's top managers had been discussing the same idea, the book said.

The book generally is sympathetic to Netscape. For example, it doesn't explore in any depth whether management fumbled at all in running the company. Microsoft's top executives did not agree to be interviewed for the book. Neither did Netscape chairman Jim Clark. (Clark, who now lives in South Florida, is writing his own book about Netscape, a company source said.)

Nor is the book error-free. For example, on page 136, it discusses a product demonstration at the "offices of the San Francisco Chronicle, during which publisher Will Hearst looked on." Hearst previously was publisher of the San Francisco Examiner, not the Chronicle. He now is a partner of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

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