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Netscape has identity crisis

Netscape is increasingly finding itself playing two roles: aggressive competitor and missionary of open standards. And it's finding that this isn't easy.

NEW YORK--As Netscape Communications (NSCP) introduces developers to its next generation of browser and server products here, the company is finding itself playing two roles: aggressive competitor and missionary of open standards. And it's finding that this dual identity isn't easy to maintain.

The tension between the need to innovate and the need to stay open is becoming more apparent. As the pressure intensifies, Netscape runs the risk of turning, as its competitors already have, to "closed" technologies, according to analysts and developers attending this week's Netscape Developers' Conference.

Most conference attendees concur that Netscape's forthcoming products--including Navigator 4.0, a new suite of client products called Communicator, and the company's SuiteSpot 3.0 servers--are the company's most serious attacks yet on the established players in the groupware market, namely Lotus Development, Microsoft, and Novell.

In his keynote speech today, Marc Andreessen, senior vice president of technology at Netscape, described "Web-based" email and groupware as the third wave of the Internet, surpassing in significance the two previous stages of development: the initial explosion of the Web and adoption of intranets.

"We think the greatest opportunity in the computer industry today is the application of intranets to business," Andreessen said.

Netscape is beginning to compete more heavily with entrenched groupware players, most of whom are embracing Internet standard protocols in their proprietary systems. In so doing, the company has defined "openness" as the chief competitive advantage of its software, but so far, some feel that the claim is shaky, undermined by Netscape's efforts to protect some of its more innovative offerings from imitation by competitors.

"Netscape abuses the word 'openness' only slightly less than others do," said David Smith, an analyst with the Gartner Group research firm. "Find another environment that supports JavaScript well besides Netscape."

Microsoft has publicly derided Netscape's handling of JavaScript, accusing it of failing to release source code for the scripting language as promised. Microsoft officials have said that it was forced to reverse-engineer the language for its Internet Explorer 3.0 browser, resulting in some annoying bugs that the company blames on Netscape.

This week, Netscape tried to defuse the JavaScript controversy by saying that it will hand over JavaScript to the ECMA international standards body, in the same way that Microsoft gave control of its proprietary ActiveX technology to the Open Group earlier this month.

JavaScript is not the only Netscape technology that has been criticized for remaining proprietary. The company introduced a set of Java class libraries, called the Internet Foundation Classes, as part of its Netscape ONE (Open Network Environment) initiative. Java custodian Sun Microsystems today reiterated concerns that the technology is limited to Netscape browsers, although there is general confusion and disagreement over whether applications built with the classes will actually work with other browsers such as Explorer.

"If you're building for the Netscape platform, the classes are great," said Lisa Poulson, a spokeswoman for JavaSoft. "They're proprietary to Netscape, though."

Some developers attending this week's conference were impressed by Netscape's new products but leery of applying the term "open" to Netscape technologies such as the Internet Foundation Classes.

"That's a little scary," said Al Giannangeli, Internet lab manager at Thomson Technology. "Netscape is definitely starting to define their own 'proprietary' standards." Today, a Netscape spokeswoman said the company does intend to make Internet Foundation Classes a standard part of Java.

With its new Communicator software, Netscape said this week that it will introduce two new HTML technologies to the World Wide Web Consortium.

Even before they are officially approved by a standards body, Netscape's HTML extensions and other technologies often become de facto standards because of the company's dominance in the Web market. In the past, both Netscape and Microsoft have been criticized for unilaterally introducing extensions to HTML before these are approved as standards and for proclaiming themselves champions of open standards while basically doing whatever they want.

Netscape's defense is that its technologies are necessary innovations in a fast-moving market and that if it waited around for standards bodies, Web development would stagnate.

Many outsiders agree. "If that's the case, how are we supposed to move forward?" said Daniel Rimer, an Internet analyst with investment banking firm Hambrecht & Quist.