While the rivalry between Netscape Communications and Microsoft has been portrayed as a heated battle of the browsers, the two companies are engaged in a more fundamental, high-stakes struggle pitting Navigator against Windows, not Internet Explorer.
Although the outcome is far from decided, the world's biggest software company isn't taking any chances with upstart Netscape, picking a strategy it hopes will defend its single most strategic technology, Windows, from what it fears could become the next operating system.
Many experts doubt whether Navigator will ever become a full-fledged OS like Windows, OS/2, and Mac OS, which, in addition to graphical user interfaces, include complex software for file management and controlling hardware such as printers, keyboards, and displays. But that hasn't stopped Microsoft executives from shifting their gaze from traditional OS vendors to Netscape.
In an interview with CNET editors this week, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's executive vice president of sales and support, candidly discussed how his company considers Netscape a serious threat to the Windows franchise and how Microsoft plans to preempt Navigator's growth by embedding Internet features directly into Windows.
"We look at [Navigator] as a very direct threat for Windows if we don't do a good job. That's not a threat a month from now or five months from now. It's a longer-term threat, but it's a clear threat. It's sort of an everyday issue, but if we screw up, you won't know for a few years."
Ballmer compared Navigator to Windows 3.1, a graphical user interface that sat on top of a true operating system, DOS, and that ultimately was superseded on desktops by Windows 95 and NT. Microsoft controlled that transition and wants to make sure Windows 95 replaces itself, rather than being replaced with Navigator, as it becomes an Internet-savvy OS, Ballmer said.
Now most experts agree that Navigator is not an OS but that it's increasingly making traditional operating systems less relevant because it runs on multiple platforms and it can run OS-independent Java applets.
Netscape itself prefers to call Navigator an "application platform," offering email, Web browsing, telephony, and, eventually, groupware capabilities in a single package. Company officials, though, draw the line at how far they will delve into the guts of the OS. "We will never do drivers," said Mike Homer, Netscape's senior vice president of marketing.
Navigator is not the only threat Microsoft faces. Sun Microsystems is planning to release its Kona operating system, which will run on a new generation of network appliances and embedded systems. If these devices catch on, they could potentially erode Windows' dominance.
Still, other vendors see opportunities in pulling OS functions out of Windows and putting them into browsers. This week, Adobe Systems announced PrintMill, a platform-independent product for locating and managing printers across the Internet and intranets from within Web browsers.
"[Netscape] is making the platform you are on irrelevant, which is a threat to Microsoft," said Tim Sloane, director of messaging at the Aberdeen Group consultancy. "That's why Microsoft wants to dominate browsers. They want to have everything tied tightly to the OS."
While it offers Internet Explorer as a standalone browser today, Microsoft has announced plans to more thoroughly integrate Explorer with Windows, allowing users to browse local file directories through a Web interface and then seamlessly switch to Internet browsing. Late last month, Microsoft and other OS vendors also announced their intention of embedding Java engines directly into their systems so that applications other than Web browsers can run Java applets. More than Java, though, Microsoft is evangelizing its own ActiveX architecture, a framework for creating Internet applets using existing program code and development tools.
But Microsoft critics and competitors counter that its Internet strategy is inextricably bound with Windows, a fact that will not play well in the cross-platform world of the Internet.
"They're not wholeheartedly building an OS-independent set of applications. They're trying to glue it all into Windows so they can keep that franchise," said Homer. "It's not Netscape vs. Microsoft; it's the Internet vs. Microsoft."
Other observers point out that Windows still dominates on corporate and consumer desktops and that Microsoft may be able to leverage its chief asset to forcefully embrace the Internet.
"The real world doesn't work on a revolutionary pace as much as Marc Andreessen would want it to. It's filled with slow-moving IS people and developers," said Dwight Davis, editor of the industry newsletter, Windows Watcher. "There are entrenched Windows clients out there, and people are installing Windows NT. They won't be throwing out those investments. They may prefer Internet capabilities on things they own and understand."