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Netscape, Microsoft duke it out

Code to make JavaScript a standard is on the way, from Microsoft or Netscape.

Microsoft plans to make JavaScript freely available on the Internet by September, a move that will help make the scripting language a standard for Web development and perhaps give Microsoft the pleasure of beating Netscape Communications to the punch.

The details of Microsoft's plan come more than seven months after Netscape and Sun Microsystems said they would make the underlying code for JavaScript--called source code--freely available to other developers. Netscape representatives said Thursday that the company is sticking to its original plans and will in fact license source code for free to other vendors before Microsoft posts its software.

The exchange is just another example of both companies' desire to be perceived as standard-setters on the Internet and an ongoing competition between the two to see which can appear the most "open."

Announced in early December of last year, JavaScript is an interpreted, object scripting language that allows developers to embed simple programs--for example, one that validates form data--into Web pages. Only loosely related to Java, JavaScript evolved out of an earlier language developed at Netscape called LiveScript and is an effort to add some intelligence to HTML pages, which tend to be somewhat thick.

Until recently, Netscape Navigator was the only client application to include an engine for running JavaScript code. This week, however, Microsoft posted the latest beta version of its browser, Internet Explorer 3.0, including a JavaScript engine that the company says it developed without any help from Netscape.

On Thursday night, the company posted a standalone, binary version of that JavaScript engine--which, for trademark reasons, it is calling JScript--to its Web site. Although the JScript engine can be integrated into any application, it does not include source code, which allows developers to further customize the JScript engine and port it to other platforms.

The source code version should be available by September, said Cornelius Willis, group product manager for Internet Developer Marketing at Microsoft. The idea is that once it becomes widely available on multiple platforms, JavaScript will join its Java cousin as an Internet programming standard.

Sun and Netscape never actually set a deadline for releasing JavaScript source code, but they did pledge to make the language an industry standard. According to a press release issued jointly by Netscape and Sun in December, the companies said they would "make a source code reference implementation of JavaScript available for royalty-free licensing, further encouraging its adoption as a standard in a wide variety of products."

According to a Netscape spokeswoman, the company is happy to see Microsoft do its own version of JavaScript, but at least one analyst questioned whether the race is worth the prize.

"My big question is how really significant is JavaScript in the grand scheme of things," said Stephan Somogyi, senior editor at industry newsletter Digital Media. "Aside from forms validation, I have yet to see a terribly useful JavaScript application."

Both Microsoft and Netscape have separate efforts--known as the ActiveX Scripting interface and LiveConnect respectively--to make JavaScript more useful by getting scripts to work in tandem with other programs such as Java applets, plug-ins, and ActiveX controls. However, the two programming interfaces could frustrate Web surfers as sites begin using ActiveX Scripting and LiveConnect, which are supported by different browsers.

Microsoft last night also posted an engine for another scripting language, Visual Basic Script, and will post source code on the Net by September. Visual Basic Script is also supported in the latest beta version of Internet Explorer.

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