Netscape users in the dark

Three months after hearing the news, Netscape Communications customers remain in the dark regarding the impact that America Online's pending purchase will have on their enterprises.

Among the unanswered questions: What exactly will the role of Sun, AOL's acquisition partner, be in developing and selling Netscape's existing software? Which Netscape strategies, products and pricing will survive intact? And, will Sun or Netscape technologists drive future Java-based developments for AOL, such as a promised "microbrowser" for handheld device?

While most customers say they are comfortable with the information blackout, undercurrents of concern remain, and at least one customer says his company's relationship with Netscape has gone to pot since the November AOL headlines.

As for the now $US7 billion deal -- expected to be finalised next quarter -- papers filed last week with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) shed new light on the extent of Sun's considerable stake. Moreover, industry analysts say Sun officials have been portraying themselves as the driving force behind any future AOL/Netscape/Sun business software plans. There was even an unsubstantiated report that Netscape and Sun's JavaSoft division might be spun off as a separate entity, according to one source.

None of the three companies was saying much this week. Meanwhile, reactions from Netscape's customers to all the machinations are mixed.

"I've been through mergers, and I know how long they can take, so I'm not in a panic today about it," says Phil Gibson, director of InterActive Marketing at National Semiconductor in Santa Clara, California. While Gibson remains confident the AOL/Netscape/Sun deal will eventually benefit National's extensive e-commerce operation, he is also anxious to see the details fleshed out.

"I certainly wouldn't buy into any commitments with Netscape ... until the deal was settled," Gibson says. "I'm sure I'm not alone in that."

Another Netscape customer, however, may not even be listening when the companies finally pitch their new vision. "Netscape has been really weird these last couple of months," says an IT executive at a Fortune 500 company, who asked not to be identified.

According to this customer, Netscape "threatened" to jack up the price of its public-key infrastructure certificate licenses from $3 to $40 each unless the customer's company agreed to sign a contract by the end of January, a deadline he believes was "no doubt" connected to the pending AOL deal.

"They were putting a significant amount of pressure on large corporations, including mine, to sign large deals before the end of their last quarter" as an independent company, he contends. Netscape refused the customer's request to speak with a high-ranking executive about the matter, instead arranging a conference call between the IT executive's internal team and Netscape product managers.

"It was the most horrendous vendor phone call that I've ever been on," the customer says. "They literally hung up on us at the end of the phone call. So we hung up the phone and said, 'Gee, do we ever want to use Netscape products again?' "The customer fired off a protest letter January 20 to a handful of Netscape executives, including CEO Jim Barksdale, but says he has yet to receive a reply. Netscape declined to comment on the customer's complaint.

Other customers report more positive experiences.

"One thing that is very promising is that the product development seems to be on track," says Chris Jennewein, vice president for technology and operations at Knight-Ridder New Media in San Jose. "There's a new version of the Enterprise Server out. There's the change to the [Lightweight Directory Access Protocol] directory. Things are moving along smoothly."

It's difficult to get a read from Netscape employees as to what's going on behind the scenes, says Kendall Whitehouse, director of advanced technology development at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

"When you talk to them, they all give the optimistic speech," Whitehouse says. "Whether that's surface or genuine is hard to say."

The fuller picture of Sun's involvement that emerged last week is enlightening and welcome, customers and industry experts say.

"Now that Sun's in for a billion bucks, it's got to find a way to make that a highly profitable investment," says Tim Sloane, an analyst with Aberdeen Group in Boston. "There are a whole bunch of things it could do to try to make that a revenue-producing opportunity such as spinning [the software companies] off as a separate software business."

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