S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 6 December 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 

 
A Piece of the Action

 

[]

It's bad enough when technical

squabbles percolate from the

bowels of the technology sector

into the mainstream press. But

when a mere war of words turns

urgent distinctions into more of

a tactical squabble, all the

wrong people usually win. These

days, those who can least afford

to lose are being splayed over

the increasingly banal brawl of

"Java vs. ActiveX." As early as

a year ago, the average observer

confronted with this dualism

might infer an obscure courtroom

battle between Juan Valdez and

the makers of adult

undergarments. These days, it's

threatening to mean much, much

less.

 

Feuding between Microsoft and

Netscape is nothing new, but at

some point, the sundry issues of

competitive corporate

positioning collapse into

fundamental questions of access:

users' access to software,

software's access to computers,

and companies' access to our

attention.

 

The untold story of Netscape's

ascent was their serpentine

throttling of distribution - of

content, plug-ins, software,

everything. It's a tale worth

telling, if only because the

looming success of Microsoft

threatens to mark an end to this

stillborn era. But the telling

begs a rewrite of the industry's

adolescent history...

 

[]

Already the darling of Silicon

Valley after a few short months,

Netscape's browser had attracted

interest from Sun, Macromedia

and Adobe, all of whom promptly

announced deals with Netscape to

integrate their respective

technologies (Java, Acrobat, and

Director) into future versions

of the browser. And every

software start-up on the net

wanted in on the action, too.

 

[]

The folly in the Valley stems

from these original deals. We'll

put forward this entirely

plausible scenario: Orchestrated

behind the scenes by John Doerr

of Kleiner Perkins, the deals

with Netscape were more about

building a "keiretsu" (which in

our Japanese dictionary

translates as "Old Boys' Club")

than about creating a new

marketplace for small-time

software developers. The deals

were easily inked and duly

submitted to PR Newswire, but

some of the partners -

Macromedia in particular - ran

into "execution" problems.

Namely, their code wouldn't be

ready for Netscape's 2.0

release.

 

[]

The Netscape Plug-In API offered

a convenient solution: a

standard way for programmers to

hook their apps into the

browser. When Macromedia finally

released Shockwave, the code

could be plopped into the

browser at any time. Even

better, the Plug-In API would be

published, so all the other

developers could theoretically

whistle their ways towards

similarly auspicious goals.

Posting the specs on an obscure

part of their site, the boys at

Netscape considered the problem

solved.

 

And they were almost right.

Overnight, there were a hundred

plug-ins, with more on the way

all the time. One can imagine

Clark, Barksdale, Doerr,

marketing VP Mike Homer, and a

grinning, drooling Andreessen

around the boardroom in Mountain

View company. After an

appropriately dramatic pause,

the CEO intones:

 

[]

Homer, who had a bit of

experience with marketing

operating systems at Apple, no

doubt outlines a strategy

straight from the pages of an

Apple business plan:

 

[]

 

[]

The roster of plug-ins listed on

Netscape's website grew, as did

the number of newspaper and

magazine articles proclaiming

that "the browser is the OS."

And if you asked any plug-in

developer how business is going,

you'd hear the same reply...

 

"Not much yet, but we're going to

get CNET to use our plug-in on

their website, and downloads

will go through the roof."

 

At the major websites, the lines

trailed around the corner for

plug-in pitchmen touting an end

to the limits of HTML or "even

better compression than

Shockwave." Most smart sites

sent them packing; the ones that

didn't soon found their customer

support desks flooded with email

and phone calls from perplexed

users, whose browsers presented

them with the cryptic error

message...

 

[]

At Netscape, though, all was

going according to plan. Plug-in

developers were sorted into two

groups, the ones who got money

and the ones who gave it. To be

sure, revenues were going to

exceed expenses in this new

profit center. Played right, the

protection money paid by ISVs,

"independent" software

vendors, could dwarf the haul

from Netscape's search engine

payola scheme.

 

The concept had ingenious

simplicity:

Step 1 - Open the technology.

Step 2 - Close the distribution.

Step 3 - The tricky part:

Convince everyone that

distribution is more open than

ever, but only if Microsoft

would stay out of the way.

 

[]

 

[]

The plan worked so well that Sun

decided to use the same strategy

with Java. While Java applets

appeared to get around the

distribution scam, the real

action sprang from the APIs,

implemented in native code that

only Sun and Netscape can

distribute. Macromedia would

create the multimedia API for

Java, and Adobe would beef up

its graphics capabilities. You,

too, could enter the lottery for

the price of a Java license,

with the jackpot of having your

code built right into the

language - but most of the poor

saps who ponied up the cash

would turn up as ghosts in the

Java Virtual Machine.

 

Meanwhile, in Redmond...

 

[]

Microsoft was finally coming to

its senses, seeing in the net a

crowded, raucous stadium, with

the teams already on the field

well into the game, and a

sold-out notice at the box

office. Of course, they owned

the place; they consulted their

sky-box seating for perspective.

 

The code boys drew up feature

sets, the top brass started to

look for holes in the business

models of the key players. It

didn't take long to discover the

Silicon Valley keiretsu's dirty

little secret...

 

[]

The solution - eliminate the

distribution scam, and put all

the net software developers on a

level playing field. Easier done

than said! Microsoft had long

been promoting OLE (object

linking and embedding) as a way

to embed applications within

other applications, but being

able to stick a spreadsheet into

a word processor somehow lacked

the appeal of a chat window on

the Playboy page. Best of all,

for Microsoft, OLE ran on all

the platforms MS cares about:

Windows 3.1, 95, NT, and, oh

yeah, the Mac - sorta.

 

[]

Presto change-o - OLE morphed

into ActiveX, a part of Internet

Explorer. As far as technology

goes, it was a major improvement

over the hacks Netscape peddles.

But then, Netscape has never

been known for its brilliant

R&D.

 

[]

The real impact of ActiveX rests

in a feature called

AuthentiCode, which is a way for

developers to digitally "sign"

their ActiveX controls,

guaranteeing that they haven't

been tampered with. This allows

the browser to automatically

install the "trusted" ActiveX

controls as needed. Most users

saw it as a convenience feature,

just one of the many reasons why

they prefer Internet Explorer.

But when Netscape 3.0 is

introduced, it's the one feature

Netscape doesn't copy.

 

It didn't take long for plug-in

developers and content sites to

catch on to the benefits of

ActiveX controls vs. Netscape

plug-ins. Start-ups with

unlikely prospects, like

FutureWave, were suddenly on an

equal footing with Macromedia,

as website developers took the

plunge and started using ActiveX

controls on their web pages.

 

[]

At Netscape, the dreams of tall

dollars from plug-ins began to

fade. But worse news was on the

way. Microsoft found a way of

merging ActiveX and Java,

allowing developers to build

ActiveX controls in Java, and

letting the "trusted" Java code

gain greater access to the

system and the ability to mix

native code with Java. While

developers puzzled over what

this means, and editors saw

their next year's worth of

"ActiveX vs. Java" cover

features angling toward

meaninglessness, Netscape and

Sun saw the writing on the wall.

In Microsoft's world, software

will play together without

licensing dollars changing hands

first. No plug-in bundling

deals, no auctioning off a place

in the Java API to Macromedia.

 

The Internet Old Boys' Club found

itself in big trouble, as the

web of deals weaving KP's

keiretsu together come apart.

The solution, while not

foolproof, exercised the home

turf advantage: a war of

disinformation.

 

"Microsoft wants to kill Netscape

plug-ins" was discarded as a

dud, and Netscape instead

settled on the "ActiveX is great

if you've got a PC" line, which

warms the hearts of the Mac and

Unix crowds, who aren't exactly

drowning in a flood of plug-ins

anyway. How about Java?

"Microsoft wants to kill Java"?

Sublime.

 

[]

The "ActiveX vs. Java" meme still

gained momentum, disingenuity be

damned! Security is the favorite

rhetoric of Sun. "Native code is

inherently dangerous and

insecure," they said (the

corollary: only Sun and Netscape

can be trusted to put native

code on your machine). This got

the academics to stop looking

for security holes in Java, and

concentrate their efforts on

ActiveX. Meanwhile, the MIS boys

started beefing up their

firewalls.

 

In Redmond, Gates was beside

himself. A recent convert to

Java, the smear campaign was the

final straw.

 

[]

 

[]

So, once again, it's off to war.

But in web infowars, casualties

are more likely to play dead

than stay dead. The irony of

this theatre of combat is that a

company like Microsoft can be

bullied by circumstance into

doing the right thing and still

see their tactics blow up in

their face. With only the

tiniest hint of a smirk, they

release a Netscape Java plug-in,

10 times faster than Sun and

Netscape's implementation. They

hire away the Mac Java people

from Natural Intelligence's

Roaster group, and put them to

work on building a better Java

for the Mac.

 

But there's no such thing as

benevolence anymore - only

cheaper and more cynical

marketing ploys. Can the cool

buzz of satisfied users douse

the shrieks of quivering

netheads and panicky competitors

quick enough to calm the spectre

of a bespectacled Big Brother,

even one that brings good things

to life? The web's technology

underwriters will keep blasting

away until the question is

settled. And in an age where few

people care whether the clip is

half-full or half-empty, but

rather who owns the gun, it

might take a while to clear the

floor of spent shells.

 
 
 
courtesy of Strep Throat