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Battle of the bragging rights

Users got to witness a true battle of the titans this week between Netscape Communications and Microsoft as they fought to snatch browser licensing deals from each other with the online services.

Users got to witness a true battle of the titans this week between Netscape Communications and Microsoft as they fought it out for browser licensing deals with the online services.

What did they get out of all the Sturm und Drang? Publicity. And users? Well, many users aren't quite sure what they got.

"Are these [announcements] good news for the consumer? Or are we reaching the point of saturation, with so many pricing plans and browsing choices, where a lot of new customers won't know which way to turn?" asked one member of an Internet newsgroup during an extended thread discussion on the deal play-by-plays.

Here's the chronology:

First, back in February, AT&T announced that it would use an AT&T-branded version of Netscape Navigator for its WorldNet Internet access service. Last Friday, CompuServe followed up by licensing Navigator and adding it to the list of browsers that the number-two online service's users can choose from. On Monday, America Online also picked Navigator to become its default browser--the one that comes automatically with the service--for its GNN direct Net access service.

All these deals were widely reported as blows to Microsoft and its Internet Explorer browser.

But AOL was mum about plans for its proprietary service, the one that has the 5 million users coveted by both Netscape and Microsoft.

Then, on Tuesday, the leading online service anointed Microsoft's Explorer as the default browser for the AOL service proper. In return, the AOL icon will be placed on the Windows 95 desktop next to the Microsoft Network. CompuServe and Prodigy promptly decided that they wanted the same deal that AOL got. Now, sources say, CompuServe expects to sign its contract by the end of April. CompuServe already licensed Explorer for its new Wow home user service.

Of course, most consumer systems came bundled with AOL, CompuServe, or Prodigy software anyway. And AOL users can still run Navigator instead of Explorer if they want. And neither Netscape nor Microsoft get anything tangible (like revenue, for instance) out of any of the deals.

What do they get? Headlines, for one thing. And, they hope, user loyalty.

What do users get? Ringside seats to the Microsoft vs. Netscape big bout.

"These deals obviously send a confusing message to consumers, but ultimately I think users will choose--and it's kind of exciting, from a 'browser watch' standpoint, to play the wait-and-see game," said Dave Garaffa, editor of BrowserWatch.

Officials at both Netscape and Microsoft say consumers will benefit from having a choice.

"I think ultimately it's good for consumers because they want a choice, so it's definitely a win for them," Netscape spokeswoman Jennifer O'Mahony said.

Michael Ahern, Microsoft product manager for Internet products and tools, agreed. "You're not going to be forced to use one browser or the other," he said.

Maybe so. But that's not why the companies did the deals, analysts say.

"I think this is about business wars, and it doesn't really concern the consumer," said Mark Mooradian, analyst with Jupiter Communications. "These deals are about people trying to protect and push their core business."

Even some of the companies involved say that the agreements don't have anything to do with picking the best technology.

"The browser agreements aren't a matter of which one works better; it's a matter of a technology decision and a business decision. The whole idea is that the browser market is a commodity market, and we don't care which one you use," CompuServe spokesman Jeff Shafer said.

In fact, CompuServe assumes that consumers don't care which browser they're using either.

"A beginning user doesn't know Netscape from a hole in the ground," Shafer said, explaining why his company chose Explorer for its Wow service. "As a Wow user, I don't care what browser I am using."

Others agree that, although users can choose whatever browser they want, most will stay with whatever comes with their basic service.

"I have a feeling you're only going to download one browser," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Group in San Jose, California.

Still, there are definite differences for those who decide to choose. For example, the current version of Navigator supports Java. The current version of Explorer doesn't. Version 3.0 of Explorer, due this summer, will support Java, but there will still be differences between the two, such as how each supports Microsoft's own applet architecture, ActiveX. It would not be a wild guess to say that Microsoft's implementation will be different from Netscape's.

"People are developing for Netscape because it's the standard right now," Jupiter's Mooradian said. "Through great marketing, Netscape got their product in 80 percent of people's hands. But Microsoft wants to get in this business--and, lo and behold, they are in it."

Analysts don't expect to see Netscape's overwhelming market share diminish immediately, but the deals with online services will almost certainly help Microsoft make a dent.

"I don't think that Microsoft will blow them [Netscape] away overnight, but you can expect them to erode some of Netscape's market share," said Dwight Davis, editor of Windows Watcher.

And if the standard is eroded, users may want to choose their own browsers instead of letting the vendors do it for them.

Related stories:
Netscape vs. Microsoft: battle of the browsers
Picking the perfect web browser