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PointCast wins spoils of browser war

As industry titans Microsoft and Netscape fought fiercely for supremacy in 1996, a nimble PointCast pushed the year's most compelling innovation.

In 1996, the computer industry had its own version of the Coke-Pepsi cola war in the form of the browser battle between Netscape Communications and Microsoft.

The two companies duked it out on many levels--their engineers, marketeers, and lawyers all got a punch or two in--and raised vendor rivalry to a new level.

But it was an upstart that gave them the real challenge. The most innovative development in browsers in 1996 didn't come from Netscape or Microsoft at all, but instead from an Silicon Valley start-up company called PointCast.

In February, the company introduced a combination browser and screensaver designed to "broadcast" data to users' computers. By the end of the year, PointCast had 1.5 million users and had inspired copycat efforts by a dozen other vendors, including Microsoft and Netscape, which both announced plans to incorporate PointCast-style information delivery into their browsers.

Both companies are now so focused on getting push technology into their browsers that the big shoot-outs from earlier this year are already fading into distant memory. At the time, though, they made fairly dramatic news.

The first came in March when Microsoft launched a flat-out marketing assault to boost its share of the browser market. In March, the company cut a deal with America Online to make Internet Explorer (IE) the default browser in AOL's client software. After that, a flurry of Explorer bundling deals followed with nearly every major Internet service provider, including CompuServe, Prodigy, AT&T, Netcom, and others. For most of them, the carrot was a little piece of real estate on the Windows 95 desktop.

This quid-pro-quo business raised controversy, however. In August, Netscape, represented by lawyer Gary Reback, lodged a complaint with the United States Department of Justice, that labeled the the bundling deals with ISPs as anticompetitive.

Microsoft simply turned its attention to releasing Internet Explorer 3.0, its most serious effort to date to match the capabilities of Navigator. With the release of version 3.0 in August, Microsoft duplicated virtually all of the major Navigator features, but added faster Java capabilities, a slick customizable interface, and support for ActiveX controls, a technology for running small programs embedded in Web pages.

The impact of all this still remains unclear. Some Web sites report large increases in the percentage of Explorer users while others claim to show that Netscape is maintaining a commanding share.

By August, however, Netscape had already moved on, focusing on corporate intranets and tackling the groupware market dominated by Lotus Development's Notes software in one fell swoop with a next-generation browser that was first called Galileo and then Communicator. The consumer market of video game systems, pagers, and set-top boxes it left in August to its Navio spin-off.

The Netscape-Microsoft feud made 1996 a good year for consumers: lots of dramatic stand-offs and the occasional bout of name-calling, but more importantly a clear motivation to develop the very best browser possible.

Predictions for 1997
"I think 1997 will be the year when you'll see more confusion in terms of this push-and-pull model. I've seen at least 20 companies that have exploited the PointCast metaphor. It won't become clear as they provide various aspects of pushing and pulling capabilities. All of those buzzwords will only filter out into one platform in 1998." --Daniel Rimer, Internet analyst at Hambrecht & Quist

"It's easy to forget that it was only a year ago that pundits were writing off Microsoft as having somehow missed the Internet. Now, IE is looking at 50 percent market share sometime in 1997 and Netscape is scrambling to find the right long-term strategy. 1997 will be the year that the browser mates with the desktop. Some of the seamless browser/desktop/application integration that has only been hinted at until now will come to fruition. For many users--and this probably applies only to those with higher-speed connections--the browser may become the default desktop." --Adam Schoenfeld, vice president at Jupiter Communications

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