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The latest corporate maneuvers in the computer world

By James Hanback Jr.

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  There is, among some hard-core Internet users, the feeling that the Internet software business has become a constant cycle Innovative new company turns into smashing commercial success, which then turns into greedy corporate dog.

Those startup companies that in the beginning brought fresh ideas and a new approach to modern computing at some point stop flying in the face of standards to set a standard of their own. It happened to Apple Computer--at least until last year, when Steve Jobs returned and reinvigorated the corporation. And now it appears the same thing has happened to World Wide Web browser pioneer Netscape Communications Inc.

The little browser that helped give the Internet a new, friendlier dimension in the mid-1990s has sold out to that largest of Internet presences, America Online. Now AOL owns the Netscape browser software and will take ownership of Netscape's popular NetCenter Web site. That means America Online will operate two of the four most popular Web "portals" in existence: NetCenter and its own www.aol.com. (The other two sites are operated by Yahoo! and Microsoft.) Rumors indicate that even though AOL has obtained Netscape's browser technology, it may stick with its current Internet Explorer incarnation for an undetermined period of time.

So what does the $4.21 billion deal mean for the average Internet user? Time will tell for certain, but already industry watchers are concerned about the possibility that AOL, using Netscape's browser software as its edge, may attempt to push smaller Internet service providers out of the market.

For the past few years, many Internet service providers have cut deals with both Microsoft and Netscape to provide users with one or both of those browsers. Locally, several ISPs bundle Netscape software with their dial-up kits, providing the software essentially free of charge when customers sign up for their service.

At present, most ISPs are competitive with AOL when it comes to rates. A lot of them, in fact, charge less than America Online for nearly unlimited dial-up.

AOL's new super-presence online could change all that, though. The company could raise the price of licensing Netscape software, forcing local ISPs to raise their rates while America Online's remain more or less stable. Moreover, AOL could not only integrate Netscape software into its own online package, it could also integrate AOLfeatures (such as the currently available Instant Messenger) into the Netscape browser suite. The already bloated Communicator software would become another hard-drive-eating monster, requiring users constantly to upgrade their hardware just to make use of the beast.

Indeed, America Online could even create new incentives for Netscape users, or implement some tricks la Microsoft that would force users to subscribe to AOL if they wanted to obtain a full-featured version of the Netscape browser.

All of this could happen. Whether it will remains to be seen. And if it does, it may not matter in the long term because those who really want to make the most of the Internet will find more innovative ways to do so outside of America Online and Netscape.

A case in point: Even now, hard-core computer users who for years have been sickened over the Microsoft monopoly are aligning themselves with better, faster operating systems like the popular Linux OS (a Unix-style operating system). Meanwhile, some serious Web surfers will tell you that neither Microsoft nor Netscape has the smallest, fastest, most resource-efficient Web browser for Windows.

That honor belongs to Opera (www.operasoftware.com), the latest version of which supports Java, JavaScript, Cascading Style Sheets, 128-bit encryption for secure Internet transactions, and the latest HTML standards--and still weighs in under 2 megabytes. At present, it's designed only for the Windows operating system, but versions for other operating systems (including Mac OS and Linux) are in the works.

Now consider the fact that the latest version of Netscape Communicator for Windows contains around 15 megabytes of information; even the standalone browser version is more than 10 megabytes. Internet Explorer 4.01, the latest version from Microsoft, requires a 24-megabyte download for full installation, a 16-megabyte download for standard installation, and a 12-megabyte download for a browser-only installation.

These applications will only get bigger.

But then, in the computer industry, every time a corporate beast threatens to monopolize the market, a new, more innovative product appears on the horizon and demolishes any notions we have of computer or Internet "standards."

Apple Computer, in spite of its financial and market-share troubles, has always been the rebel's alternative to the Microsoft operating system, although Linux may become Bill Gates' major arch-rival before too long. Opera or something like it may end up being the browser of choice for devoted Web surfers.

Regardless of what happens with AOL, Netscape, Microsoft, or any other software company, users of modern technology need to understand that just because they're buying the most popular operating system or online service does not mean they're necessarily getting the best package for their dollar.

That said, if the America Online-Netscape merger provides you with the tools you need, then by all means support these companies. But if you're like a lot of people out there, and you're tired of AOL's annoying little additions to Netscape, or you've had it with the daily bugs that keep popping up in Microsoft Internet Explorer, you'll want to look for something different.

Don't settle--help keep the computer industry on its toes. Besides, what's standard today more than likely will be slow, old, and obsolete by sunrise tomorrow.

Sinking pirate ship

InterMedia Partners last week decided to put a permanent end to more than 2,500 pirated cable decoder boxes. The devices were crushed Nov. 23 by a steamroller from Powell Building Group.

According to a statement from InterMedia, the company will receive $235,000 as part of a settlement against QB Distributors, LLC, a Faribault, Minn., company allegedly manufacturing the pirate cable decoder boxes. The company surrendered the 2,500 pirate boxes, along with related devices that allow cable thieves to receive programming free of charge. QB has also been ordered to stay out of the cable-decoding business permanently.

"The case provides a strong legal precedent for InterMedia and other cable companies to aggressively pursue pirate cable box distributors," said Bruce Stewart, vice president and general counsel for InterMedia Partners.

According to InterMedia, QB was a two-man operation in Minnesota. Its devices were advertised in Nuts & Volts and Popular Mechanics. The boxes sold for almost $300 a piece.

Strange brew

On the heels of a ruling that forces Microsoft to change its implementation of Sun Microsystem's Java in Windows '98, the software giant has announced that it will completely remove Java from the Macintosh and Unix versions of its Internet Explorer Web browser.

Currently, browsers like IE and Netscape's Navigator use their own Java "virtual machines" to allow users to download and run Java applets and applications on the World Wide Web. Java is a programming language developed by Sun that's meant to be used on multiple platforms. In other words, what's written in Java and runs on a Macintosh will also run on Windows and Unix.

Alongside the government's antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, Sun officials accused the company of illegally changing the Java implementation inside Windows '98 so that some features would work under Windows alone.

Two weeks ago, Microsoft was given 90 days to add Sun's "Java Native Interface" to Microsoft's virtual machine and Visual J++ development tools, making the Microsoft software compliant with Sun's original licensing.

Although the non-compliant virtual machine is being removed from IE 4.01 for Macintosh and Unix, Microsoft says the code for both versions of that browser will be rewritten to take advantage of Java virtual machines by other manufacturers. Apple's latest implementation of Mac OS comes with its own virtual machine, which Internet Explorer will access in order to run Java applets.

Microsoft added that the changes will have little impact on users. Still, the ruling is a major victory for Sun, preserving its native Java code as the Java "standard."

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