Microsoft, Netscape heads fire volleys

Netscape's Jim Barksdale and rival Bill Gates of Microsoft have pledged support for Internet standards.

Netscape's Jim Barksdale and rival Microsoft's Bill Gates both pledged support for Internet standards yesterday, while launching a few volleys in their Web turf war.

Gates, chairman and chief executive of Microsoft, and Barksdale, chief executive of Netscape, were part of a keynote panel at the Gartner Group Symposium/ITxpo here. The panel also included top executives from Andersen Consulting, Visa USA and America Online.

Microsoft and Netscape have been at odds over Microsoft's ActiveX component integration specification, with Netscape's Jim Clark going so far as to urge developers not to write for ActiveX unless Microsoft brings it up through traditional standards bodies. Netscape supports CORBA's IIOP (Internet Inter-Orb Protocol) standard. Last week, Microsoft put ActiveX in the hands of the Open Group, which will marshall ActiveX through its standardisation process.

While not mentioning ActiveX by name, Barksdale says Netscape believes some games may be played in the standards arena. Netscape won't try to dominate Internet standards, he says, although it will help influence them. "We would be foolish to abandon open Internet standards," Barksdale says, adding that Netscape will watch to make sure there are no games played in the standards arena. "If certain people did dominate those standards, it could be a significant shift in the opportunity for everybody. We're mindful of that."

Gates, however, says no one company can control Internet standards, noting that Microsoft does not make unilateral changes to HTML and supports Netscape's plug-ins. Companies must pick where to add value to standards, he says; for example, Windows incorporates numerous standards. But, Gates says, "there's no one who's going to control the printing press of the future, which is the Internet".

When asked, Barksdale decried government intervention in the Internet. But he bristled when asked how he could square that position with Netscape's complaints to the US Justice Department about Microsoft's alleged anticompetitive marketing practices for its Internet Explorer. "All we've asked is, 'Let's stay within the consent decree'," Barksdale says, noting that Microsoft's control of the operating system means its browser tactics should be watched.

AOL CEO Steve Case predicts that both Microsoft and Netscape will continue to have strong positions -- even some overlapping use -- in the Web market, although Microsoft may have more success in some markets, and Netscape will have more success in others. "It's better for everyone if there's not one company with 80 or 90 percent market share," Case says. "It's also better if there aren't 20 companies dividing the market."

Despite the pending launch of the new version of Microsoft Network (See MSN to charge), Microsoft's online service, Gates and Case seemed chummy on stage, talking about AOL's decision to use Microsoft's Internet Explorer as its default browser. Gates also says he believes MSN can grab more users without cannibalising AOL, the number one consumer online service. But one analyst says there's no question about whose audience Gates has set in his sights.

"He's going after AOL's lunch," says Allen Weiner, principal analyst for online services at Dataquest, a Gartner Group company.

Gates says MSN will be more interactive; for example, if a user sits and stares at a screen, the screen will start suggesting options to the user.

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