Provided that Microsoft's Internet Explorer catches up with Netscape Navigator's features, users are likely to end up choosing their browsers based on which offers the most third-party add-ons. On this battlefront, Microsoft's strongest weapon against the now-overwhelming popularity of Netscape's browser may be its tried-and-true ability to win over and support developers. And, as time has proven, it doesn't even need the best technology to do so.
Netscape, meanwhile, is working overtime to make sure that it can keep pace with the needs of an expanding developer community of its own. Despite its lead--with most estimates giving the company roughly 80 percent of the browser market--some say the strain is showing.
The evidence of this is coming from some surprising quarters. At last week's Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in San Francisco, Next Software CEO and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs--the least likely figure to turn up at a Microsoft event, as he himself said--complained about the difficulty of being a developer for Netscape.
"Microsoft is treating Next the way you'd expect Netscape to treat an independent software vendor. And Netscape is treating Next as you'd expect Microsoft to treat us," Jobs said. Then he threw his company's support behind Microsoft's ActiveX architecture for creating self-contained applications that can be downloaded over the Internet.
Other developers agree that one of Netscape's greatest challenges will be providing developers with timely access to tools and training. But they give Netscape higher marks for effort.
"In the beginning, it was a little bit rough [for developers]...when Netscape first announced plug-ins," said Brian Kenner, chief technology officer of software company Interview. "Microsoft's [developer support] is definitely more complete--more tools, more documentation. [Netscape's developer support] is by no means as mature as Microsoft's, but it's getting better. Recently, Netscape has been endeavoring to do a better job of supporting its developer community."
First and foremost, ActiveX is important as an effort to lobby Microsoft's vast community of existing Visual Basic and Visual C++ Windows developers to write for Explorer too. ActiveX controls will also run in any OLE-compliant application like Microsoft Word so that ActiveX developers have a huge existing market to sell to, whereas Navigator plug-ins are confined to the browser market. To make sure that all bases are covered, Microsoft also last week licensed and plans to promote technology from NCompass that will allow Explorer to run Navigator plug-ins and Navigator to run ActiveX controls.
"Anybody who is a registered Microsoft developer today will be inundated with ActiveX stuff," said Stephan Somogyi, senior editor at DigitalMedia, an industry newsletter in San Francisco. "Everybody who is doing any kind of vaguely professional windows development will be targets for ActiveX."
Java applets have a broader market too, with Sun, Netscape, and Novell pushing the use of the language for server-side applications. But Microsoft has accounted for that too. If it can't beat Java, then it will deliver a visual Java development tool, code-named Jakarta, to fill out its line of C++ and Basic products.
Still, Microsoft must prove itself. Internet Explorer 3.0 is not due out until this summer, which means that ActiveX controls are not likely to appear on the Internet in any significant numbers until this fall. And it must overcome the considerable loyalty that has been won by Netscape in pushing many of the technological envelopes that Microsoft is only now attempting to fill.