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Everybody wants to drive

It took some longer than others, but now that every major computer software vendor has hitched its future to the Net, it's time to fight over who sits in the driver's seat.

NEW YORK--It took some longer than others, but now that every major computer software vendor has hitched its future to the Net, it's time to fight over who sits in the driver's seat.

The executives of the three leading Internet companies had the perfect forum for elbowing each other at this week's Internet and Electronic Commerce Conference here, where Microsoft's Bill Gates, Sun Microsystems' Scott McNealy, and Netscape's Jim Clark each delivered their keynote speeches replete with Internet predictions and warnings--warnings mostly about the other guys.

Both Netscape chairman and founder Clark and Sun CEO McNealy warned about one company (read Microsoft) dominating Internet standards.

Bill Gates, for his part, resisted pitching eggs directly at his competitors, choosing instead to focus on Microsoft's strategy of absorbing Internet access and authoring capabilities directly into the operating system.

"The amount of code in the browser is bigger than a spreadsheet," Gates said. "The browser is growing faster than any other application. We've got to get the browser more into the center [of the PC], in the OS."

And that's the idea that scares Clark.

"If [Microsoft] does get to the point of dominating [the Internet], they'll close it up. I absolutely guarantee it," he said. "We plan to keep them honest. We don't need them to go away for [Netscape] to be successful."

McNealy echoed Clark's caution, assailing PC hardware and software as proprietary environments that often force businesses into standardizing on the products of a single company, one that is now more often than not Microsoft.

The three executives did agree on one thing: the potential of the Internet to change the computing industry entirely. Clark was especially bullish on the Net's potential to shake up telecommunications monopolies around the world, saying it could eventually replace the telephone as the primary communications network.

"I think the Internet will replace the telephone system," he said. "We'll see an increase in switch-speed so that [the Internet] can handle real-time data. Practically every telephone industry in the world is a monopoly. It's cheaper to dial the United States from France than to dial Germany from France."

The TV as we know it is a goner too, Clark predicted. "There isn't a single television manufacturer in the world that isn't planning to offer Internet access in their TVs," he said. "When you boot up your television, you'll have your own home page. You'll click on TV Guide."

As for electronic commerce, Gates forecast that new technologies, such as secure payment protocols, will resolve today's concerns about security by 1997. "By next year, all of the foundation issues [of the electronic commerce infrastructure] will be addressed. That will allow for turnkey electronic commerce servers," he said.