Will AOL/Time Warner Deal Change Web Sites?

The stunning announcement yesterday that America Online Inc. will merge with Time Warner Inc. may change the way companies develop their Web pages by speeding up the development of high-speed Internet access and possibly rekindling "browser wars," Web developers and analysts say.

If the all-stock deal is successful, the companies, valued at $350 billion with combined yearly revenue of $30 billion, see themselves as positioned to speed development of the Internet and interactive content, according to a joint statement. And that could spark changes in the way companies design and build Web sites aimed at consumers.

"When it comes to designing Web site content, the increasing use of broadband devices to access the Internet [will mean companies] will have to produce more rich media like we see on television," said Dan MacKeigan, a senior Internet analyst at Arlington, Va.-based Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. "It's a sign of things to come. It's a challenge to develop broadband content."

Tom Lix, president and CEO of Newmarket Network, a Boston-based Web development firm that has done work for National Public Radio and others, agreed.

"Hopefully, this will speed up the introduction of broadband into people's homes, and it will bring a lot of what the Internet has to offer to regular audiences," Lix said. "Web developers [will] have to develop more and better features for higher and higher speeds. If companies are smart, they are already moving in that direction. If not, now they have to move in that direction."

Some retailers have been eager to add better graphics, streaming video, 3-D interactivity and other data-intensive options that would give shoppers a better sense of products for sale. However, such features could add lengthy page download delays for consumers on dial-up modems, and the expense of developing features has to be justified by a critical mass of users with high-speed access.

The head of J.Crew.com in Lynchburg, Va., said his company has already been thinking about providing Web site content for broadband.

"We have several capabilities on hand that we could roll out with broadband which would enhance our customers' user experience and optimize sales productivity," said Scott Gilbertson, president of e-commerce at J.Crew.com.

"However, we do not want to dilute the experience of the majority of customers without access. The potential merger with AOL as a delivery mechanism brings a significant presence of broadband to the average customer, and we will be right there to roll with it. We have the flexibility to offer one site for broadband and one for PC modems."

David Fry, director of Fry Multimedia in Ann Arbor, Mich., whose company designs Web sites for firms such as Eddie Bauer Inc., Godiva Chocolatier Inc. and 1-800-Flowers Inc., agreed that the merger will have tremendous implications for marketers and merchants currently developing traditional Web sites, if and when it leads to more widely available broadband access.

But Glen Lipka, a founding partner of Kokopelli New Media in New York, said he doesn't think Web site developers have to rush to change the way they do things.

"It will take years for broadband to propagate," he predicted.

However, what Lipka foresees is a return to the browser wars that apparently ended last year -- which, he said, may also signal a change in the way the content of Web sites is developed.

"Because AOL owns Netscape, and now AOL/Time Warner will own Netscape, I think the company might switch its browser from Internet Explorer to Netscape and its content will be viewed in Netscape. It's silly not to use Netscape," Lipka said. "That could change the way Web designers design pages because they will have to design their content for Netscape. ... Now there is a massive amount of content and millions and millions of dollars being spent designing for Internet Explorer."

Lipka said the reason AOL hasn't been using Netscape as its browser is because "Netscape 4.0 was problematic." But he said he thinks AOL will release Version 6.0 and Netscape Navigator will release Version 5.0 in April or May, paving the way for AOL to use Netscape as its browser.

Lipka also questioned the timing of those rollouts. Had those products been rolled out before the Microsoft antitrust trial, "it could have given Microsoft a card to play in court because that would have given further credence to Microsoft's position that it wasn't a monopoly," he said. "But now that the political implications have kind of passed, it's OK for AOL to come out with this new version. It also gives them time to redesign the content [of the products]. This is all so incestuous."

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