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Netscape's James Barksdale on Browsers and Buyers

September 16, 1996|Michael A. Hiltzik

Netscape versus Microsoft. Navigator versus Explorer. Internet versus Intranet. Those were the topics last week as Netscape Communications Corp. Chief Executive James L. Barksdale delivered the keynote speech at the Internet Commerce Expo in Anaheim.

In an interview with The Times following the speech, Barksdale opened by discussing the rivalry for the Internet browser market between Netscape, whose Navigator browser supports such program-writing languages as Java Script, and Microsoft, whose Explorer is designed to support a Microsoft development program called ActiveX. The interview was conducted by Times staff writer Michael A. Hiltzik.

Question: Beneath the surface of the so-called browser war between your company and Microsoft lies an important consumer issue. That's the inability of the Internet industry to create consistent standards allowing users of one firm's browsers to view pages written on another's system.

Barksdale: There is an industry standard. It's called HTML [hypertext markup language]. It's called Java Script. There are two dozen industry worldwide standards that run great [on all browsers]. Microsoft's ActiveX is not one of those. That's a very proprietary Microsoft technology.

It's obvious to us--I think it's obvious to Microsoft, it's obvious to everybody--that there is a bigger market out there if it all plays together than if people try to carve off proprietary pieces. So let's not build the world's connectivity on a proprietary standard. That would mean millions of users frustrated around the world. It's like if your telephone only talked to 25% of the people. It wouldn't be much of a phone.

Q: Your keynote speech this morning addressed the commercial potential of the Web. Yet most of the examples you presented were Intranet applications--that is, big companies communicating internally using Web technology. What about companies that are trying to become established as new commercial entities on the Web? That's where there's the most skepticism over the real commercial potential of the Internet.

A: It seems to me that it is fairly obvious that the businesses that are doing well are the ones that can only be done in cyberspace. Example: Amazon Books [http://www.amazon.com]. What is the unique characteristic of Amazon Books compared to a Barnes and Noble bookstore? You can get to 1.5 million titles. I don't know how many titles Barnes and Noble has, but it is limited to [the store's] physical size. I think of applications like Travelocity [http://www.travelocity.com]. Travelocity actually lets you book flights on 700 airlines around the world. But the question is where can I, as a new business, Amazon Books, or an old business, American Airlines, use [the Internet to provide services] that couldn't be done in the real world.

Q: Isn't the question whether these are services that a broad market can use? With 1.5 million books, for instance, the Amazon Books page may have too many books for me. With Travelocity, I may not want access to 700 airlines. I may only want access to one.

A: You can do that. Like "Give me American's flight."

Q: Is that a virtue? I may not really know enough about arranging travel to be sure I'm getting the best flight or the cheapest fare, not without a professional intermediary like a travel agent.

A: Sure you do. Click on Travelocity and you'll figure it out in two minutes. I know what you are saying--if we can't operate a VCR how are we going to do this? But once you get in, I promise you it is far easier than talking to a travel agent.

Q: Easy for everyone? For a large number of users, the computer and Internet access are still perversely complicated.

A: I know. We're all working on this problem.

Q: How close are we?

A: We're getting close. It has also been shown in a lot of studies that ease of use is not the prime driver. Out of one side of our mouth we [say we] want simplicity and out of the other side we want productivity. "I want it to be simple until I learn how to use it, then I don't want all that stuff between me and the machine." What you really want is that you want the user to be able to run sometimes as an appliance and sometimes as a Ferrari. What we as providers of software and hardware need to do is to recognize that.

Q: Another burning question seems to be the ultimate capacity of the Internet. As applications proliferate--from audio and video to long-distance phone traffic--are you sure the Web can grow fast enough to avoid a capacity crisis?

A: Sure. It's like any medium. It will grow based on demand. It's increased probably tenfold in the last two years. In Netscape itself, we now drive more capacity in a day than we did in a month a year and a half ago. There are vendors out there who will take our money and hook us back into the Internet and run faster and faster and faster. It's a great model and not, in my opinion, analogous to a physical system. A lot of people say it's like the highway system. It's not at all like the highway system. The amount of dark fiber lying under the United States right now will carry all the traffic in the history of mankind. You just need more, better technology to drive the network, more fiber, more switches, new technologies.

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