netscape and aol/time-warner, part two.
© 2001 Jamie Zawinski <jwz@jwz.org>


I normally don't bother writing about stuff like this any more, because I was just so tired of talking about it by the time I quit Netscape and AOL. I'd said my piece in my resignation letters, and didn't really have anything more to add.

I even manage to studiously ignore the messages I see every time mozilla.org announces a new alpha release: invariably some twinkie will pop up out of nowhere and claim that the fact that mozilla.org is asymptotically closer to maybe someday actually releasing an end-user product means that somehow I've been proven wrong about something. They usually say something about ``this ought to teach jwz a lesson!'' I just don't get that. My point was not that mozilla.org would never be able to finish the product: my point was that they were already a year late, and showed every indication of being even later. Which they have been: it's now more than two years later, and they still haven't finished it. Even if they had finished it six months ago, my reasons for leaving would still have been valid: that mozilla.org did not manage to ship an end-user product in any kind of reasonable timeframe, and that I was tired of waiting. I had certain goals, and I didn't see those goals being met.

But enough about that. I wish the Mozilla group the best of luck, and I do hope someday to be using their software to browse the web. But I'm definitely glad that I've left the computer industry, and have spent the last two years doing new and exciting things of my own, rather than having spent it continuing to flog away at Netscape's orphan. I have my own behind-schedule and over-budget project to work on now.

Recently, a reporter asked me some questions, and I responded. Since I'd already typed up my answers, I decided I might as well publish it here, since other people ask me this kind of thing with some regularly. Some of the questions made me cringe, but I guess sometimes those are the best kind of questions to answer.

What do you think of where Netscape is now, and what its prospects are for the future?

Netscape is nowhere, since Netscape no longer exists. There is no longer a company called Netscape. It ceased to exist in 1999, when AOL bought it. The Netscape ``brand'' is still being used by AOL/Time-Warner, but there is no ``Netscape'' any more. Just AOL/Time-Warner and the many names under which it does business. That's important to remember, because whatever nostalgia you might have for Netscape-the-company, it is no more.

Ok, what do think of the Netscape brand's fortunes at the moment?

I don't know what ``brand fortunes'' means, but I don't think much of Netscape's products these days. But that's to be expected, since nearly all of the brilliant people Netscape once employed left for more promising and more innovative companies long ago.

What are the major hurdles facing the Netscape brand?

I really don't care whether the Netscape brand is in the public eye. That's just a name, that's just a label. It would be nice if some of the products I had worked on were still of relevance, but they seem not to be.

Their major hurdles would be to either: ship a kick-ass web browser, and ship it about three years ago (oops, too late!); or make people think ``portals'' matter (oops, too late!)

How would you rate AOL's oversight of the Netscape brand?

I don't really understand why they bought Netscape at all. Maybe it was simply to prevent the Netcenter portal (the monstrosity that the Netscape home page had become) from competing with AOL. They certainly didn't buy Netscape for the browser, especially given AOL's recent announcement that they're standardizing on Internet Explorer. In 1998, I wrote, ``it's hard to imagine that [AOL] would spend $4 billion dollars on Netscape just to throw away the client.'' But that would appear to be exactly what they have done.

What are your thoughts about AOL's contiuned reliance on Microsoft's browser? And do you think AOL will switch to the Netscape browser anytime soon?

I can't imagine that AOL would ever switch to a Netscape browser until such a time as the Netscape browser software is notably better than Internet Explorer. And that seems extremely unlikely at this point, given the huge headstart they've ceded to Microsoft already.

Do you think the AOL/Time-Warner merger will have any impact on the Netscape division?

I don't know what Time Warner's motivations are intentions are; but if I had to guess, I'd guess that the current incarnation of the Netscape division is beneath their notice.

AOL owns Compuserve too, you know. They were important once. Now, nobody cares.

The thing that concerns me about the Time-Warner acquisition is that it's yet another example of centralization of control: now we have a company who own a huge part of the news, music, magazine, motion picture, and television industries also having control, via AOL, of one of the primary channels by which the general public gets online. That kind of vertical integration and massive captive audience is not healthy for a free society. It leads inevitably to a reduction of choices and a reduction of viewpoints that can become heard.

That kind of control of the entire communication infrastructure, from content creation, through marketing, to end-user delivery, is just a disaster as far as true Democracy goes. I wrote about this concern, pre-Time/Warner, near the end of my AOL resignation letter, and the situation has only gotten more dire since then.

If you haven't read Kalle Lasn's history of corporations in America, I highly recommend it.

What do you think will happen to the Netscape brand in coming years?

It will fade from view, and nobody will notice. It will become an historical footnote, like NCSA Mosaic has become. Meanwhile, through their ownership of AOL, you can expect Time/Warner to do their best to ensure that their own properties are the only choices people see.

This acquisition sullies the once-great Netscape name by making it a part of a corporate juggernaut no less dangerous than Microsoft. It means that not only did Netscape lose their struggle with Microsoft, but now they've become what they fought against.

[Netscape's new president] said that it is irrelevant whether AOL's service adopts the Netscape browser, because it wouldn't generate any more money for Netscape. The browser is free, after all, and the start page would still be AOL.

That's the kind of myopia that killed Netscape.

If Netscape (or AOL, or anybody else) had a popular, but free, browser product, that product would have enormous value to the company, and the reason is not that people are too lazy to change their default home page.

The value would be in the fact that a lot of people out in the real world used that browser, which means that Microsoft would have to actually abide by the open standards, in the interest of interoperability.

Here's how it works: if people running web sites know that 70% of their customers use one browser, and 30% use another browser, then they will build web sites that work with both. The common denominator between the two competitors will be the standard (de facto or de jure, it doesn't matter).

However, if people running web sites believe that 99.9% of their customers use one browser, then they won't bother making sure their site works with anything else. And when Microsoft gives them some new toy to play with, they won't even realize that they're being locked in to something closed and proprietary.

The end result of this is that Microsoft unilaterally sets the standards, and becomes even harder to compete with in any domain.

That matters not only to AOL (in their role as browser manufacturer) but to everyone who might have to compete with Microsoft (which is anyone who hopes to become successful, since Microsoft feels they are in every business.)

If Microsoft controls the standards, then they can change them at a whim, as an incredibly powerful weapon against their competitors.

AOL, of course, has as lousy a track record of using and following open standards as Microsoft does. So it's unlikely they understand what is obvious to so many of us, that open standards are critically important to the functioning of the Internet. Open standards are what made all of this possible at all.

Jamie Zawinski, 3-Jun-2001


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