Java Loses Netscape
Saturday, January 24, 1998 by Dave Winer.
Last week, talking with several Netscape people, they told me privately that Netscape's commitment to Java was over.
In the future, they would provide APIs that allow operating system vendors such as Microsoft, Sun or Apple to hook Java virtual machines into their web browsing software, but Netscape will not take responsibility for porting and maintaining the Java virtual machine for all the operating systems they support.
Late last night, the San Jose Mercury-News broke the story.
We're at a juncture here. A loop is unwinding. It was Netscape's commitment to Java that put it on the map in 1995. That endorsement is over.
Java didn't become the ubiquitous web content format that people widely predicted it would. It's no longer reasonable to argue that someday it will.
In late 1997, in a phone conversation with Bill Gates, I asked why they didn't give Java back to Sun and take it out of Windows? Let Sun have exclusive development responsibility for Java? Wouldn't that be easier than fighting a lengthy legal battle with Sun?
His response was that they needed Java to keep MSIE competitive with Navigator. Now that reason has gone away. Microsoft may or may not give Java back to Sun, but their primary reason to continue to invest in Java is gone.
Now we have to wonder, who's going to balance Microsoft? There was a short euphoric period when the Internet, and Microsoft's lack of presence in it, fed an enormous creative energy and independence. Netscape was at the center of that euphoria.
It's the same answer it always was. The secret is working together. Win-wins. Large companies partnering with small ones, leveraging off each other's strengths. This is what Microsoft is not good at. This is the zig to Microsoft's zag.
Bill Gates, in a BusinessWeek interview, points out that IBM has ten times the number of people as Microsoft. Sun has almost as much revenue as Microsoft. Apple has 25 million users.
For every Microsoft-owned content format, there are competitive formats with just as much following. An example -- Microsoft has NetShow, and there's RealAudio and QuickTime, neither of which is owned by Microsoft. MacroMedia has Flash and Shockwave. What does Microsoft have?
Further, Microsoft does not have a dominant position in content development tools, in fact, Microsoft is barely present in this market! There's so much juice there, so much unorganized balance.
But the big companies do it wrong, they don't do win-wins with smaller companies. Unfortunately for them, the really good independent thinking non-Microsoft developers work at the smaller companies.
To counterbalance Microsoft you need an army of highly incentivized independent developers producing exciting software.
The venture capital model is weak at providing balance to Microsoft. They produce some hits, mostly misses. The CEOs they hire are not grounded in technology, they make good IPO roadshows, but in the end the companies become Microsoft roadkill. Their Act One is good, but two, three and four are weak or non-existent. This happens because the companies try to be Microsoft. You can't, there already is a Microsoft, and they're very good at being that.
Let's learn from the Netscape experience. Their natural grounding was in the content developer world. The leader of Netscape should have been someone skilled in building websites, someone who loves the medium, who speaks the language and understands the issues of content people: writers, artists, designers and geeks. That person would have known how to zig to Microsoft's zag. It's testimony to the weakness of the VC model that Microsoft could capture the hill in web browsers even though their technologists don't do websites.
The most common analyst quote in response to the Netscape release of source code says that an "army of unpaid developers" will now be available to Navigator, an army that won't be available to Microsoft.
I'm sure Microsoft can come up with an answer to that and it's not even the issue. Individual programmers may have artistic reasons to want to improve Navigator, but most great programmers insist on getting paid for their work. I wouldn't bet too heavily on an army of unpaid developers.
But who has the money to support a bunch of competitive efforts to improve the browser world, and to provide realistic balance to Microsoft's strength?
The answer is IBM or Intel or Cisco or TCI or any cash rich media company that thinks the Internet is an important part of their future. Or even the Silicon Valley venture capitalists could invest in a company with a non-traditional spreadsheet, for strategic reasons.
Let's work out the economics, build another brand name that people can respect, an alternative to Microsoft, built out of brains and passion for art and choice and competition.
We, the software industry, can solve this problem.
The Netscape people could see the writing on the wall.
They didn't want to take the source code for Navigator down with their corporate ship.
Their choice, to release the source for Navigator, was an act of unusual generosity.
Let's do something with that.
Tomorrow I'm off to Palm Springs for Microsoft's Web Tech Ed conference.
I'm going to spend a lot of time hanging out with Microsoft people in the next few days. No doubt we have interesting stuff to talk about.
So this is probably the last DaveNet piece till Wednesday or Thursday. I'll take good notes and let you know what happened in Palm Springs and in this incredible world we live in.
A final note.
Frontier 5 is scheduled to ship on Wednesday.
Look to http://www.scripting.com/frontier5/ for news.
Wish us luck!