Everyone's Equally Nasty
Thursday, March 18, 1999 by Dave Winer.
As predicted, it turned out to be a big news week on the web.
We're taking another close look at web browsers and portals, thanks to announcements from both Microsoft and Netscape.
And this morning Microsoft released Internet Explorer 5.0, now installed on my main system, and it's working much better than the betas, yet there are still major areas that need work, notably the use of the browser as a text editing environment.
I hereby offer to work with people on Microsoft's browser team to get better text editing into the browser environment for 5.1, 5.2, etc, and make the same offer to Netscape or any other browser vendor who sees the browser as a two-way environment, for reading and for writing. There are a range of options, we have flexibility, but we need improvement in this area as we move forward with our content management software. I'm sure our competitors could benefit from such improvements as well.
There was only one surprise in the Microsoft release, unfortunately they're matching Netscape's What's Related feature in MSIE5. This is disappointing. What's Related is an invasion of privacy on a mass scale, and users don't even know that they're sending information about sites they visit back to Netscape's server. The page describing the feature, on Microsoft's site, does not warn users about the privacy issues.
A side-note, I'm glad I decided not to go to Redmond today for the Microsoft announcement. My experience in Cupertino on Tuesday was that I'm the only person who asks tough questions. I'm tired of playing that role. Reading the reports that came out after the Steve Jobs/Eric Raymond marketing pitch, almost all the reporters just regurgitated the Apple party line. If I went to Redmond I probably would have been the only one asking Microsoft people how they sleep at night when the users are unknowingly sending private information to Alexa's or Microsoft's databases.
In Apple's case, the obvious question was, what about the people who use WebTen, which is Apache for the Mac OS? They were touting Apache as if it were a newcomer to the Mac world. That's not true. And what about sysops who run WebSTAR or Quid Pro Quo and (shudder) Frontier on their Mac web servers? What would they like to say to those people, other than "Convert to Apache and WebObjects?"
Another interesting question that wasn't picked up by any press (correct me, please, if this is wrong) is that Apple chose to compare Mac OS X Server to Apache running on NT, instead of IIS on NT. There's only one obvious explanation, yet no one raised the question. Is NT really that bad a server? No, of course it's not. Silly. Why does the press let Apple get away with this?
I'm asking reasonable questions that executives should be prepared to answer. The reporters don't ask or don't care. I honestly don't understand how or why the system works this way. There should be more rigor applied to the claims that industry execs make. It's not their fault if the press lets them be so slippery. If the press changed its ways, the industry would reform itself at a higher level, I'm sure of it.
OK, now let's switch back to Netscape's announcement on Monday.
With the my.netscape.com channel technology, Netscape is heading into some very interesting water, from a content management point of view, this is fertile ground. But their lawyers got into the middle of it, and put a legal agreement in the way of this new publishing system, that, in my opinion, would keep anyone with integrity from providing content on their system.
On the Scripting News home page, on Monday, I said: "Netscape's agreement was too one-sided and restrictive for us. Unless their agreement changes, you won't see our RSS file displayed on my.netscape.com. Be sure to read the agreement carefully before registering. You're giving Netscape's attorneys a lot of power over what you say on your website. Be sure there's something in it for you."
One of my readers, Dave Aiello, asked me to explain the reasoning process, and here's a lightly edited and amplified version of what I posted.
Dave, we felt that they could reasonably have the right to terminate the syndication at any time without cause, and we would indemnify them against any claims that we had misbehaved, and leave it at that. That seemed reasonable. Add a disclaimer for their users that this window contains content that is outside of their control, and claim the same kind of lack of responsibility that an ISP is entitled to on the email messages that flow thru their servers, and leave it at that.
Instead of looking at it from their point of view, look at it from mine. I would have to disclose this agreement in practically every DaveNet I write, further I would have to have them reviewed by attorneys to be sure there isn't some way I'm violating the agreement with Netscape. It's taken me a while to understand what I can and can't do, under the laws of the United States, and I'm comfortable with that, except when they pass vague laws that abrogate the Constitution. But even there, I trust the courts to provide a sensible backup. However, the Netscape agreement would open us up to litigation under terms that are far narrower, and since it could be argued that we were compensated for agreeing to these constraints, there would be a lot of ways Netscape could win.
Of course they wouldn't really be concerned about the content if they sued, because we run a tasteful service, and I don't really do any of the things they say they're concerned about. It's much more likely that they would sue us as a competitive tactic. We're in a lot of the same businesses they are. And if you think I'm being paranoid, I am, with good cause. We once got into a legal jam with a competitor who was also a platform vendor, and they used a very old irrelevant legal agreement to delay shipping of a product that was embarassing because it was so much better than theirs. The thing to remember is that lawyers have databases, and it's really easy for them to do a query to find out what "tools" they have to get you to ease up on them in the marketplace, and sometimes product managers ask for that kind of help.
I asked for no agreement with them to syndicate my content. I see them as being as neutral as an ISP. Further we have a track record they can examine, and as soon as there's a problem they can pull the plug. I don't see why they need to get into concepts like "pyramid schemes" or "grossly offensive" and what if someday I want to run a contest on Scripting News? Geeeeeeez.
Think about how zealous the open source guys are about legal agreements about source code. Well, I'm just as zealous about legal restrictions on what I can and can't say. The whole reason Scripting News is good is that I can say whatever I want in whatever way I want, within bounds that I think I understand, and no one can tell me otherwise.
Thanks for asking, clearly I had a lot to say about this!
Netscape has a good idea, and the RSS file format, though imperfect, is open. So the clear answer is to compete, which is what we will do. We've already registered my.userland.com, and have an application running there that allows people to register RSS files and verify that they're correctly formatted.
We will implement syndication without overly restrictive legal agreements with the information providers. We will syndicate that content in a form that any portal can pick up, without having to do the simple content management that Netscape is doing. We will fill the role they intend to fill, without restraining speech, and trust the legal system to understand that we're just carrying the bits, not editing them. The content will be available, as HTML snippets stored on a publicly accessible server, to Yahoo, Xoom, Deja News, Microsoft, TheGlobe.com, Geocities, or Mr and Mrs Smith's Portal Company, at no charge. When we have the server running, probably by the end of this weekend, I'll send out a DaveNet with our proposition to the industry.
This is where I have the most power. Sitting in the second row at press conferences asking tough questions is uncomfortable to me. Netscape is letting their attorneys screw the industry. That's not my problem. I see it as an opportunity. I hope others in the Internet industry see it that way too. Let's fix this problem and keep Netscape's attorneys out of this business. They don't belong here.