Netscape fixes Apache in its sights

Netscape is intensely examining Apache's market but denies it is stealing customers.

CNET News staff
3 min read
While Netscape Communications has by far the largest piece of the browser market, the company's Web server software lags well behind its freeware counterparts. Now, Netscape has started trying harder to figure out why.

The company's main investigative tool is a questionnaire that it has emailed to users of the most popular freeware server, Apache. Netscape sent out a survey to Apache users promising respondents a free Netscape mug for answering various questions, including why users chose Apache, how satisfied they are with the server, and if they would prefer to use Netscape server software.

While this kind of marketing research is nothing unusual, Netscape's interest at this juncture in competing more effectively with the freeware market reflects the increased importance of server revenue just as Netscape's dominance of the browser market is challenged by Microsoft, analysts said.

"Market share is the name of the game on the Internet," said Ira Machefsky, vice president of theGiga Information Group. "Over time, [Netscape] has to capture server market share. It will be increasingly difficult for them to keep their browser market share. At their current level, you can only go down."

The Web owes its genesis to the distribution of free browser and server software, but companies such as Netscape have attempted to lure users away from freeware with commercial products that include security features, as well as technical support.

Right now, server software sales don't account for much of Netscape's current revenues. According to Netscape's 1995 ann ual report, Navigator and client products accounted for 58 percent of the company's total revenues in the quarter ending December 31, 1995, while server and application software accounted for only 29 percent.

To grow that server revenue, Netscape needs to grow its market share for Internet surveys. But instead, it's the Apache freeware that has been gaining ground over recent months.

According to the latest survey from Netcraft, a consultancy that polls thousands of Web sites every month to see what server software they are running, Apache accounts for 33 percent of Web servers on the Internet, followed by 21.8 percent for another freeware server, NCSA HTTPd. Netscape's server market share is only 16 percent, a figure that combines all four of its server products--Communications, Commerce, FastTrack, and Enterprise Servers.

The survey covers only Web sites on the Internet, not on private corporate networks, where Netscape claims to have made substantial inroads.

Netscape doesn't want to appear to be competing directly with Apache, a product maintained and updated by a group of loosely connected developers known as the Apache HTTP Server Project team and supported only through Usenet newsgroups and mailing lists or through paid third-party support companies such as Cygnus-Support.

"We're hoping to find out what's so attractive [about Apache] and apply it to our market," said a Netscape spokeswoman. "We're not trying to steal away market share. This is plain and simple market research."

At least one Apache user, however, complained that Netscape is indeed trying aggressively to win over Apache sites, competing to the point of annoyance.

"They are constantly sending me emails, phone calls to the office, even after I told them we weren't interested," said Mark McDonald, technical support manager at Nucleus Information Service, a Calgary-based Internet service provider. "I'm not sure what is up with them, but I for one have become tired of it."

McDonald and other Apache users cite several reasons for using the software: not only the fact that it's free but also that Web masters can modify the server's source code to add new features easily. ISPs in particular have become attracted to Apache because it offers superior virtual domain name hosting, a feature that allows multiple domain names, such as aol.com and stevecase.com, to be run on a single Web server.

But Apache is not the only free server Netscape has to worry about. The decidedly commercial Microsoft has attempted to drive demand for its Windows operating systems by offering both Web browser and server software for free. According to Netcraft's June survey, Microsoft's Internet Information Server is running on 3.35 percent of all Internet servers, up from 2.55 percent for the May survey.

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