netscape and aol.
© 1999 Jamie Zawinski <jwz@jwz.org>


I've talked to a lot of reporters over the last year, and I think I've gotten fairly good at it, but one of my most entertaining ``wow, I really shouldn't have said that'' moments came when someone from the New York Times asked me what it would be like working for AOL, given that they represent (in her words) ``all that is cheesy and mainstream about the net.'' She asked if AOL had lost that stigma. I disengaged my brain and answered,

I think AOL still has all the stigma that it always has, as far as image goes. My friends keep saying ``jwz@aol.com'' and then laughing uncontrollably...

So of course this quote ended up on the front page of the Times, just below the fold. Oops... I got mail from Marca saying ``please don't be stirring the shit right now.''

Incidentally, the address jwz@aol.com is already taken. I don't know who it is. Maybe you should send mail there and ask.

When I first heard the rumors that Netscape was going to be bought by AOL, I didn't think much of it; it's a regular occurrence for us to hear rumors like that. For a while there was a persistent rumor that Apple was going to buy us. Then (during one of Apple's low points) that we were going to buy Apple. Then that Netcenter was going to be spun off into its own company. And so on. So I'd gotten used to ignoring these rumors; surprisingly, this one turned out to be true.

My first concern was about what this would mean to my project, mozilla.org. Without having any idea of what AOL's plans for Netscape would be, I couldn't make many real predictions, but I took the opportunity to drive home a point that I'd been trying to make since we started mozilla.org: that it was not necessarily tied to Netscape. That the source being free meant that the project belonged to whomever wanted to step up and take control.

In that respect, the AOL thing was very good for mozilla.org, because it had been very hard to get people to listen to or understand that message, and now the media had finally stopped saying ``Mozilla'' when they meant ``Netscape'' and vice versa.

I published a document re-explaining mozilla.org's place in the world, and outlining the worst-case scenario: how even if it turned out that AOL had no interest in open source or in browser software development at all, Mozilla would still be free. Then, the next day, I got encouraging email from Steve Case, AOL's CEO. I published that too, but only after we had confirmed via telephone that it actually came from him... Before this, I didn't know what Steve's email address was, and it would have been a drag to have fallen victim to a prank from some random AOL user who had changed their screen name to something plausible...

But, the future of mozilla.org aside, the fact is that AOL buying Netscape was deeply depressing.

This buyout meant that Netscape's executives had finally given up. That Netscape could not go it alone. Generously, that Netscape had stumbled, and needed to be propped up by another in order to survive. Less generously, that Netscape had self-destructed, was dead, defeated, and now being auctioned off for parts.

At some level, selling out to AOL was probably the best thing for all involved, given the alternatives available to a beaten company. Before the acquisition was announced, Netscape's stock price had been in the low to mid twenties for most of the previous year. However, it had been much higher than that in previous years, which means that most employees were ``underwater'' -- their stock options, the golden handcuffs by which startups retain employees and occasionally hand out enormous rewards, were literally worthless: the price at which employees were allowed to exercise their options was higher than the value of the stock.

By selling to AOL, all those Netscape employees got to trade in their NSCP shares for AOL shares, which were actually worth something. And now they get to see some financial reward for their hard work of the previous years, so that's a good thing. What was the alternative? Having made the decision that Netscape was beaten, had Barksdale simply resigned, you can bet that Netscape's stock price would have gone through the floor, and nobody would have seen any reward at all.

I like Jim Barksdale, and I have a huge amount of respect for him. I find him to be a very sane, smart, honest man. And someone in my position is not inclined to think those sorts of things about someone in his position. To someone like me, most CEOs are space aliens. But not Jim; he's one of the first businessmen I've trusted. And it's too bad that he gave up on Netscape's independence, because if he doesn't believe it can be made to work, I sure don't either.

Barksdale published his swan song recently, and in it he tries to paint an expectedly rosy picture. In that paper he says something that he's repeated at a few of our company meetings, something that bothers me a great deal. He says something along the lines of, ``all successful businesses go through mergers,'' and then goes on to list some examples: the railroads, the auto makers, the telephone company (singular), the television networks. In other words, the robber barons: the great dehumanizing, creativity-stifling monopolies of the 20th century.

If you ask me, about the only more depressing comparison he could have come up with would have been to relate Netscape to the Native American nations (``all great cultures undergo mergers and acquisitions...'')

I told Jim this, and his response was that he didn't find the people he'd been working with at AOL to be ``dehumanizing'' at all, he found them to be fun, creative people. But that kind of misses the point: it's not the people, it's the organization.

Some will tell you that an organization is the people who make it up, but that's not the case at all. The whole is larger and completely different from the sum of its parts. The system that we as a society have invented to run our world is a simple one. It's a game with a small number of rules. You put the pieces on the board, wind it up, and let it go. The thing is, the rules involved are all about money. The underlying theory is that you motivate people to provide value to society by making it be in their best interest to do so. But that's the intent; the mechanism is much less vague. The mechanism is money.

Corporations are not evil. That kind of anthropomorphism is inappropriate. Corporations are too stupid to be evil, only people can be that. Corporations are mechanisms. People can influence them, but by and large, corporations just follow the rules.

Bear in mind that, for a publicly-traded company, if a CEO makes a decision because it's the right thing rather than because it's the most profitable thing for the shareholders, he will lose his job, and possibly be sued into oblivion. That's the way the rules work.

For someone not solely motivated by profit, the way to win this game is to pick your goals such that your goals, whatever they may be, are aligned with the goals that the corporate mechanism will seek for itself. For example, if your goal is ``working on interesting stuff,'' then the best way to do that is to find a company which looks at the stuff you're interested in as a way to meet its goal of ``making lots of money.''

And sometimes the only way to win is not to play.

America Online practices censorship on a large scale. The reason for this is not because they feel they hold the moral high ground. It's not because they think they know better than you what is good for you. It's because they believe that practicing censorship is profitable. They believe that it's what the majority of their customers want. Do you think that's crazy? Think again. They want to position themselves as a ``family oriented'' site. To a huge number of people out in the real world, the Internet is a disgusting wasteland, full of rude, cruel, nasty people, child pornographers, and photos of people having sex with dogs. They go to AOL because it's a kinder, gentler face for the Internet. They go there because AOL will keep them safe and clean.

Now, if there are people who truly want that, that's their prerogative. If someone chooses to use a censoring ISP, or to install censor-ware on their own machine to keep the internet boogeymen away, I have no problem with that.

But what happens if the world changes, and AOL becomes even more wildly successful than they already are? What happens if the independent, non-censoring ISPs can no longer compete with the AOL behemoth, and it turns out that the only practical way to connect to the internet is through one of the large, international internet corporations like AOL? What if, of all the practical choices available for internet access, all of them are ``family oriented''? What if it turns out that the only way you can practically publish your web pages (without serious bandwidth or cost problems) is by doing so on a server like AOL or @Home, and what if to publish a document there, you need to comply with their ``Terms of Service''? Meaning you can only publish material suitable for children?

Perhaps this is far-fetched. I hope so. But if you think that non-censoring network access and publication will always be available because there will always be some people who want it, consider that Barnes and Noble have all but eliminated the independent bookseller, and that Blockbuster Video have all but eliminated the independent video store. And let's not forget that it is Blockbuster's policy not to rent NC-17 movies. We're not talking about pornography here: we're talking about movies that are merely not for children.

AOL is about centralization and control of content. Everything that is good about the Internet, everything that differentiates it from television, is about empowerment of the individual.

I don't want to be a part of an effort that could result in the elimination of all that.

Jamie Zawinski, 31-Mar-1999


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