Microsoft and Netscape may be battling over the World Wide Web browser market now, but the stakes will get higher as the companies work to fold the browser and operating environment together, analysts are saying.
"I don't think one side will be the winner. But over time, we will see the differentiation between browsers diminish and the browser functionality merging with the operating system," says Stan Lepeak, programme director at Meta Group, based in Stamford, Connecticut. "The browser as the universal interface for a variety of different applications is here to stay.
"The key, longer term, will be what sort of platform can you provide from which users can either one, launch Internet or intranet applications, and two, extend the existing desktop applications," Lepeak says. Microsoft's next-generation operating system, Nashville, which is due out before the end of the year, will represent a merger of the OS and its Internet Explorer browser, according to analysts.
Meanwhile, Netscape is pushing OS functionality into its Navigator browser, including developing future versions that will allow users to create Web pages and access other applications through the browser. "Navigator is already like an operating system," Ira Machefsky of Giga Information Group in Santa Clara, California, says, mentioning Netscape's plans to integrate audio, shared whiteboard and other tools into Navigator 4.0. "It's a universal collaboration client," he says. "It certainly becomes a client-side platform, like an operating system."
Microsoft, however, will continue to have the ubiquity of its Windows platform as an advantage, according to Machefsky. Integrating Internet functionality into Windows 95 in Nashville will prompt users to upgrade, he says. "Microsoft doesn't have to turn its browser into a platform; it's got Windows." But analysts say both software giants will have to bow to the power of Sun and its Java object-oriented programming environment, which has a component structure that is particularly suited for distributing applications over the Internet and internal corporate intranets.
But with all the upgrades, functionality extensions, plug-ins and general increase in complexity in the applications and market overall, comes an increase in support problems for users and corporate developers, Lepeak says.
Users will have a hard time keeping track of what's available and what's on their desktop, and developers will have to keep all the different browsers and applications in mind when creating Web sites and intranets, he says. "It's going to be a real big pain for the typical user trying to keep up with all the bells and whistles that are coming and trying to digest all the new browsers and functionalities," he says.
"Microsoft and Netscape are running around touting their new browsers and others are touting their new plug-ins, but 90% of the stuff isn't needed or will make the system crash because of incompatibilities," Lepeak says.