Kearns' column: America Online, Netscape and you

The America Online/Netscape Communications merger was on my mind over the Thanksgiving weekend as I speculated on who was giving thanks for the buyout, and who wasn't. The big winner is Microsoft.

For one thing, AOL's CEO Steve Case plans to stick with an Internet Explorer front end for his company's network. For another, Netscape browsers will continue to evolve, but development will be done mainly through an open source software process in which Netscape's product will be relegated to the browser of choice for Linux users, diehard Internet veterans and the Anything But Microsoft crowd. I expect businesses to drop Netscape's browser out of concern that the software will no longer be supported.

Under the AOL/Netscape pact, Sun gets distribution rights to Netscape's server software, which will most likely undergo changes to make it more Java and Solaris friendly. Other Unix vendors get caught between a rock (Sun) and a hard place (Microsoft), but quite possibly will end up pushing a version of the free Apache Web server. Should these Unix vendors do that, it's possible that the open source software version of Netscape's Web client will continue to grow as these vendors take on the job of supporting their version of the browser.

Left out in the cold is Novell. Now Novell's CEO, Eric Schmidt, needs to rely on his old friends at Sun to continue to produce a Web server for NetWare.

A lot has also been made of the "culture clash" between northern Virginia's AOL and Silicon Valley's Netscape, but I'd love to see the AOL mind-set come to the valley. AOL's greatest strength has been the ease-of-use and user-friendliness of its network.

AOL came to dominate the online and dial-up markets because it gave most people what they wanted with little fuss. Silicon Valley's lack of user-friendliness is epitomised in its newest attraction, The Tech Museum of Innovation. In a perfect triumph of form over function, it has large, open areas (with no exhibits) for people to mill about in, while cutting bandwidth in the display areas so that a person needs to turn sideways to move between walls, pillars and display cases. It's more of a monument than a museum. A monument, that is, to the Valley's "we know best" attitude towards users.

The software industry needs more people like Steve Case.

Kearns, a former network administrator, is a freelance writer and consultant in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at wired@vquill.com.

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