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The question on Quora goes, What lessons can be learned from the first browser war between Microsoft and Netscape?

I covered that war when it broke out, more than fifteen years ago. No magazine was interested in my writing then. Blogging was several years off in the future. All we had were websites, and that was good enough. The following is what I put up on mine — in as much of the original HTML as can survive WordPress’ HTML-rewriting mill. I’ll continue below the piece…


MICROSOFT+NETSCAPE

WHY THE PRESS NEEDS TO SNAP OUT OF ITS WAR-COVERAGE TRANCE

By Doc Searls
December 11, 1995

Outline

Wars?

Am I wrong here, or has the Web turned into a Star Wars movie?

I learn from the papers that the desktop world has fallen under the iron grip of the most wealthy and powerful warlord in the galaxy. With a boundless greed for money and control, Bill Gates of Microsoft now seeks to extend his evil empire across all of cyberspace.

The galaxy’s only hope is a small but popular rebel force called Netscape. Led by a young pilot (Marc Andreesen as Luke Skywalker), a noble elder (Jim Clark as Obi-wan Kanobe) and a cocky veteran (Jim Barksdale as Han Solo), Netscape’s mission is joined by the crafty and resourceful Java People from Sun.

Heavy with portent, the headlines tromp across the pages (cue the Death Star music — dum dum dum, dum da dum, dum da dummm)…

  • “MICROSOFT TAKES WAR TO THE NET: Software giant plots defensive course based on openness”
  • “MICROSOFT UNVEILS INTERNET STRATEGY: Stage set for battle with Netscape.”
  • “MICROSOFT, SUN FACE OFF IN INTERNET RING”
  • “MICROSOFT STORMS THE WEB”

The mind’s eye conjures a vision of The Emperor, deep in the half-built Death Star of Microsoft’s new Internet Strategy, looking across space at the Rebel fleet, his face twisted with contempt. “Your puny forces cannot win against this fully operational battle station!” he growls.

But the rebels are confident. “In a fight between a bear and an alligator, what determines the victor is the terrain,” Marc Andreessen says. “What Microsoft just did was move into our terrain.”

And Microsoft knows its strengths. December 7th, The Wall Street Journal writes, Bill Gates “issued a thinly veiled warning to Netscape and other upstarts that included a reference to the Pearl Harbor attack on the same date in 1941.”

Exciting stuff. But is there really a war going on? Should there be?

are the facts?

After reading all these alarming headlines, I decided to fire up my own copy of Netscape Navigator and search out a transcript of Bill’s December 7th speech.

I started at Microsoft’s own site, but got an “access forbidden” message. Then I went up to the internet level of the site’s directory, but found the Netscape view was impaired. (“Best viewed with Microsoft Explorer,” it said.) I finally found a Netscape-friendly copy at Dave Winer’s site. It appears to be the original, verbatim:*

MR. GATES: Well, good morning. I was realizing this morning that December 7th is kind of a famous day. (Laughter.) Fifty-four years ago or something. And I was trying to think if there were any parallels to what was going on here. And I really couldn’t come up with any. The only connection I could think of at all was that probably the most intelligent comment that was made on that day wasn’t made on Wall Street, or even by any type of that analyst; it was actually Admiral Yamomoto, who observed that he feared they had awakened a sleeping giant. (Laughter.)

I see. The “veiled threat” was Bill’s opening laugh line. Even if this was “a veiled threat,” it was made in good humor. The rest of the talk hardly seemed hostile. Instead, Bill showed a substantial understanding of how both competition and cooperation work to build markets, and of the roles played by users, developers, leaders and followers in creating the Internet. In his final sentence, Bill says, “We believe that integration and continuity are going to be valuable to end users and developers…”

Of course, I wish he’d pay a little more attention to Macintosh users and developers, but I don’t blame him for avoiding them. I blame Apple, which dissed and sued Microsoft for years, to no positive effect. Apple played a zero-sum game and — sure enough — ended up with zero. Brilliant strategy.

Think how much farther along we would be today if this relationship was still Apple plus Microsoft, rather than Apple vs. Microsoft.

The truth is that the Web will be better served by Microsoft plus Netscape than by Microsoft vs. Netscape. Plus is what most of us want, and it’s probably what we’ll get, regardless of how the press plays the story.

give a big AND to the Web

So what is the best way to characterize Microsoft, if not as the Heaviest of Heavies?

I think Release 1.0‘s Jerry Michalski gets closest to it when he says: “Microsoft thinks more broadly than any other company about what it’s doing. Its plans include global telecommunications, information creation, applications — even community building.” That tells us a lot more than “Microsoft goes to war.”

Markets are more than battlefields. The OR logic of war and sports get us excited, but tells us little of real substance. For that we also need the AND logic of cooperation, choice, partnership and working together. What we all want most — love — is hardly an OR proposition. Imagine a lover saying “there’s only room in this relationship for one of us, baby.”

But the press is caught in an OR trance. Blind to the AND logic that gives markets their full color, the press reduces every hot story to the black vs. white metaphors of war and sports. Why cover the Web as the strange, unprecedented place it is, when you can play it as yet another story about two guys trying to beat the crap out of each other? Especially when the antagonists are little good guy and a big bad guy?

Look, the Internet didn’t take off because Netscape showed up; and it wasn’t slowed down because Microsoft didn’t. It took off because millions of people added their creative energies to something that welcomed them — which was mostly each other. Death-fight competition didn’t make the Web we know now, and it won’t make the Web that’s coming, either.

That’s because every site on the Web is AND logic at work. So is every vendor/developer relationship that ever produced a product or created a market. So is the near-infinite P/E ratio Netscape enjoys today.

, what IS Microsoft doing?

“Embrace and extend,” Bill Gates called it in his December 7 talk. That’s what he said Microsoft will do with products from Oracle, Spyglass, Compuserve and Sun. Is this an AND strategy? Or is it yet an other example of what Gary Reback, Judge Sporkin and other Microsoft enemies call a “lock and leverage” strategy, intended to drive out competition and let Microsoft charge tolls to every traveler on the Information Highway?

We’ll see.

It should be clear by now that the Web does not welcome OR strategies. Microsoft Network was an OR strategy, and it didn’t work. If history repeats itself (as it usually does with Microsoft), the company will learn from this experience (as Apple learned earlier from its eWorld failure) and move on to do the Right Thing.

Not that most of the press would notice. To them Microsoft is The Empire and Bill is its gold-armored emperor. But reporters are the ones putting clothes on this emperor. To the people who make Microsoft’s markets — the users and developers — “billg” is as naked as a newborn.

Take away the war-front headlines, the play-by-play reporting, the color commentary by industry analysts, the infatuation with personal wealth — and you see Bill as an extremely competitive guy who’s also trying to do right by users and developers. And hiding little in the process. Is he a bully? Sometimes. Is this bad? No, it’s typical of big companies since the dawn of business. It looks to me more like a personality trait than a business strategy. And what makes Microsoft win is far more strategic than personal.

George Gilder puts it this way in Forbes ASAP (“Angst & Awe on the Internet“):

Blinded by the robber-baron image assigned in U.S. history courses to the heroic builders of American capitalism, many critics see Bill Gates as a menacing monopolist. They mistake for greed the gargantuan tenacity of Microsoft as it struggles to assure the compatibility of its standard with tens of thousands of applications and peripherals over generations of dynamically changing technology.

to win users and influence developers

How does Bill express that tenacity? As Dave Winer puts it in “The Platform is a Chinese Household,” Bill “sends flowers.” Bill courts developers and delivers for customers, who return the favor by buying Microsoft products.

Markets are conversations, and there isn’t a more willing conversational participant than Bill. That’s why I’m not surprised when Dave says “the only big company that’s responsive to my needs is Microsoft.” And Dave, by the way, is a pillar of the Macintosh community. To my knowledge, he hasn’t developed a DOS-compatible product since the original ThinkTank.

Users and developers don’t need to hear vendors talk about how much their competition sucks. No good ever comes of it. Is it just coincidence that Microsoft almost never bad-mouths its competition? Though Bill is hardly innocent of the occasional raspberry, he’s a long way from matching the nasty remarks made about him and his company by leaders at Sun, Apple, Netscape and Novell, just to name an obvious few.

It especially saddens me to hear competition-bashing from Guy Kawasaki, whose positive energies Apple desperately needs right now. As a customer and user of both Apple and Microsoft products, I see Guy’s “how to drive your competition crazy” rap as OR logic at its antiproductive worst.

At the opposite end of the diplomacy scale, I like the way Gordon Eubanks of Symantec has consistently been fair and constructive in his public remarks about Bill and Microsoft (and has reaped ample rewards in the process).

What makes markets work is a combination of AND and OR processes that deserve thoughtful and observant journalism. They also call for vendors who can drop their fists, open their minds and look at opportunities from users’ and developers’ points of view. This is how Microsoft came to change its Internet strategy. And this is what makes Microsoft the most adaptive company in the business, regardless of size. No wonder the laws of Darwin have been kind to them.

new breed of life

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance…
Always substance and increase,
Always a knit of identity… always distinction…
Always a breed of life.
—Walt Whitman

Where the language of war fails, perhaps the language of Whitman can succeed.

By the great poet’s lights, the Web is a new breed of life. An original knit of identity. Its substance increases when opposite equals like Netscape and Microsoft advance out of the dimness and obey their procreant urges — not their will to kill.

The Web is a product of relationships, not of victors and victims. Not one dime Netscape makes is at Microsoft’s expense. And Netscape won’t bleed to death if Microsoft produces a worthy browser. The Web as we know it won’t be the same in six weeks, much less six months or six years. As a “breed of life,” it is original, crazy and already immense. It is not like anything. To describe it with cheap-shot war and sports metaphors is worse than wrong — it is bad journalism.

A week after this experience, I went back to Microsoft site and found its whole Internet Strategy directory much more Netscape-friendly and nicely organized. Every presentation is there, including all the slides. Though the slides are in PowerPoint 4.0 for Windows, my Mac is able to view them with the Mac version of the program. [Back to *]

George Gilder’s Forbes ASAP article archives are at his Telecosm site.

Dave Winer’s provocative “rants” come out every few days, and accumulate at his DaveNet site. Check out “The User’s Software Company,” which inspired this essay.


One might look back on this and say “Yeah, but Microsoft still killed Netscape.” I don’t think so. Netscape had many advantages, including one it tried too late to save the company — but not too late to save the browser and keep it competititve: open-sourcing the Mozilla code. Five years after I wrote the above, I wrote a piece in Linux Journal describing Netscape’s mistakes:

For a year or two, Netscape looked like it could do no wrong. It was a Miata being chased down a mountain road by a tractor trailer. As long as it moved fast and looked ahead, there was no problem with the truck behind. But at some point, Netscape got fixated on the rear-view mirror. That’s where they were looking when they drove off the cliff.

Why did they do that?

  1. They forgot where they came from: the hacker community that had for years been developing the Net as a free and open place—one hospitable to business, but not constrained by anybody’s business agenda. The browser was born free, like Apache, Sendmail and other developments that framed the Net’s infrastructure. The decision to charge for the browser—especially while still offering it for free—put Netscape in a terminal business from the start.
  2. They got caught up in transient market’s fashions, which were all about leveraging pre-Web business models into an environment that wouldn’t support them. Mostly, they changed the browser from a tool of Demand (browsing) to an instrument of Supply. They added channels during the “push” craze. They portalized their web site. They turned the location bar into a search term window for a separate domain directory, to be populated by the identities of companies that paid to be put there (a major insult to the user’s intentions). Worst of all, they bloated the browser from a compact, single-purpose tool to an immense contraption that eventually included authoring software, a newsgroup reader, a conferencing system and an e-mail client—all of which were done better by stand-alone applications.
  3. They became arrogant and presumptuous about their advantages. At one point, Marc Andreessen said an OS was “just a device driver”.
  4. Their engineering went to hell. By the time Netscape was sold (at top dollar) to AOL, the dirty secret was that its browser code was a big kluge and had been for a long time. Jamie Zawinski (one of the company’s first and best-known engineers) put it bluntly: “Netscape was shipping garbage, and shipping it late.” Not exactly competitive.
  5. They lost touch with their first and best market: those customers who had actually paid for that damn browser.

So, back to the original question. What have we learned, now that IE is still around, and most of its competitors are either open source or based on open source code? Here’s a quick list:

  1. The browser was never a product in the sense that it’s something that can be charged and paid for as a scarce good. It wanted to be open source in the first place.
  2. The war metaphor is distracting and misleading, even when it’s appropriate.
  3. No browser is even close to perfect, and none will ever be.

Feel free to add more of your own, here or on Quora. (I’m very curious to see how Quora evolves.)

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Starting a few upgrades back, Firefox started showing this…

firefox_feature

…  when you clicked on that little icon at the left end of the location bar. (What’s the name for that?) Now, with version 3.5.3 (and perhaps earlier versions — the last one I used before this was 3.0.9), it still shows that same pop-down thing, but no longer selects the location text to the right. That’s not a problem, because you can still select all the location text with one click anywhere within that text. I only discovered that feature by experimenting around. Searching the Mozilla site was useless. The feature also violates normal expectations of what happens when you click once (place cursor), twice (select word), or three times (select all) on text, but I don’t mind. A little conditionality doesn’t hurt, and it’s good to be able to select a whole URI easily.

What I don’t get is why it’s worth mentioning that a site “does not supply identity information” and that the site “is not encrypted” when these two conditions prevail for approximatly every site on the Web, including Firefox’s own, which is the case I used above to demonstrate the feature. Yes, I understand why the pop-down is there, but I’d rather return to having a click on the icon select all the text to the right. Is there a way to go back to that?

Meanwhile what “identity information” are they talking about? Mine? Mozilla’s? If I click on “More Information…” a Page Info window opens, telling me next to “Owner” that “This web site does not supply ownership information.” Of whom? Of what? To whom? Not clear.

Hey, I’ll cop to being a second-rate geek (which is true); but it’s a safe bet that if I don’t know what this is about, regular old Web surfers don’t know, either.

So, as long as we’re being unclear, it’s better (at least for me) to go back a few steps toward something that’s both plain and useful. Bury this pop-down’s functionality in the Tools menu or something.

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