AOL acquiring Netscape

One of my regular readers has asked me to write about the Netscape /AOL merger. I've been silent so far on the topic because I really don't think it affects me.

I think there are three things that the deal could affect:

  1. The Microsoft anti-trust trial.
  2. Long-term Internet standards and browser direction.
  3. The balance between the net and AOL proprietary services.

Taking them in order:

I'm not much of a fan of anti-monopoly laws. I'd far rather have IBMs that eventually self-destruct and have to reinvent themselves than regulated telephone monopolies that can't understand new technologies. The now predictable outcome of the Sun Java suit against Microsoft , and the release of the Halloween memos, has made a bunch of former Microsoft cheerleaders realize that we deal with the monster from Redmond carefully, lest we end up lunch, so if the merger hurts the DOJ case against Microsoft, we lose very little.

As for long term internet standards and browser direction, what with Mozilla spun off, and AOL's existing pattern of support of free software, Internet standards and infrastructure (AOLServer and Primehost come immediately to mind), I don't think much changes. If anything we'll probably see more browser development in the free software community.

For a similar take on this, check out Jamie Zawinski's take on the merger from the standpoint of protecting the Mozilla project.

Netscape servers haven't been feature-competitive products, so what Sun in essence got was Netscape's consulting business, which is not only profitable, it's what Sun needs.

For all of the "AOL is the Internet" jingo, AOL knows better. Proprietary services are one thing, but despite the pundits the 'net wasn't built on shopping and buying airline tickets, porn and the fringe drove it. I think AOL understands that, certainly their most brainless of subscribers asking "wH3r3'5 tH3 e1eeT p0rN0 s!t3z?" do. About the only thing I can see that AOL does get out of this deal is , the destination for millions of browser users too stupid to change their home page default; in other words: consumers.

It's hard work to support dial-up customers, that's a market that when we were considering Chattanooga On-line 5 years ago we expected that by now we would have gotten walked all over by the local telephone companies, and the only reason that hasn't happened yet is that customer support is still a horrendous part of the job and that phone companies don't get switched packet, but that's changing. AOL understands that with the phone and cable companies finally getting into the loop it's not going to be reasonable for everyone to pay a premium for an address, so they've got to branch out and find other ways to tap into those consumers. The acquisition of Netscape is a step in that direction.

So, "go back to your lives, citizens, there's nothing to see here". We still have two dominant browsers with a couple of others waiting in the wings, and Microsoft's is still winning the battle. Sun has a few more customers, whether they can keep them is the same question we've been asking. AOL is a bit more diverse, but they've already got their fingers in pies we aren't aware of. And the Mozilla project is a little uncertain, but if anything that'll give a reason for Opera and some of the other browsers to make some gains.

Wednesday, November 25th, 1998