It was only a little over a year ago since I hopped in my car and drove the 140 miles between my house and the ever-growing empire of Microsoft boss, co-founder and all-round rich guy Bill Gates to hear about how he would ?bet the company? on the success of the Internet. Microsoft?s December 1995 announcement set off a battle of the browsers between itself and Netscape in January that was to continue at fever pitch all year. The intensity of this battle became apparent in June at an intranet strategy briefing in California, where Microsoft was juggling three versions of its Internet Explorer browser. Version 2 for Windows 95 had been out for a few months by that point; version 3 had just entered beta-testing stages; and Gates showed version 4, codenamed Nashville, at the briefing. Never before in the history of the PC industry had a major player like Microsoft produced software that had such a short shelflife before being replaced. And that?s only on the Windows 95 platform ? never mind the development work on the Mac and Windows 3.1, which hit version 3 by the end of 1996. The pace of development at Netscape was no less frantic. Several upgrades of Navigator were released during the year, including the pace-setting version 3, Navigator Gold and Internet and intranet management and authoring products. February started to see a great deal of excitement about the network computer (NC) concept as Oracle chief Larry Ellison began showing off proto- types of what he said would be a cheaper, simpler and more sensible alternative to the PC. The NC would be a stripped-down device, costing about $500, with the ability to use a TV as a display and operating primarily as a way of sending and receiving email, browsing the Web and running Web-based applications. The idea was initially scorned by many of the computer industry as another of Crazy Larry?s get rich quick schemes. There was also heavy scepticism about the idea that anyone would rely on anything so precarious as a Net connection to run their wordprocessor, check their bank account or do any of the dozens of other mainstream tasks proposed for the NC. But to his credit, Ellison doesn?t seem crazy any more. Less than 12 months after he first began talking about NC devices, early models are available ? and more are on the way from firms such as IBM and Apple. Even Microsoft has had to work with Intel to come up with an NC alternative, known as the Net PC, which it hopes will answer many of the issues that allowed the NC to capture to imagination of so many companies in the first place. But it appears there is a limit to how well MS and Intel can respond to the NC. Much of the NC?s appeal lies in the notion that it doesn?t require a single piece of software from Microsoft or a single chip from Intel. This is not an idea you can expect the Wintel alliance to support. To really make an idea like the NC attractive for lots of users, there had to be a way of taking the Web beyond being a place to look at pages of text and pictures. It had to be able to do something. By the spring, it was clear that the Sun Microsystems? Java language would provide just the vehicle for doing real work and running real applications over the Web. Better yet, Java was processor-independent, operating system independent and could run on any PC or NC with a Java-enabled browser. In March, Sun was busily signing up hardware and software companies to take out licences to put Java in their browsers and network operating systems. In addition, by the end of the year, Java eventually made it on to silicon as the company kept its promise to build a range of Java processors that were optimised for running Java code. The significance of Java cannot be easily overstated. Over more than a decade of battles by Unix companies, IBM, Microsoft, Apple and others, a market-driven standard has arrived that will let applications run on multiple hardware and operating system platforms, that is useful, powerful and flexible ? and only took about a year to entrench itself. The next hurdle for Java developers will be to find a financial model that makes sense. This could prove as much of a challenge as writing Java code that will run on so many different browsers and OS platforms ? particularly as it involves changing the mindset of users accustomed to shrink-wrapped code for Windows. Oracle seems to be backing the idea of an annual fee so that, for example, you might pay $60 a year to use a top-of-the-line Java-based wordpro- cessing package, with technical updates available free over the net as soon as they become available. Oracle believes this would be more attractive than the current practice of paying several hundred dollars for an unlimited time use and subsequent percentages of that fee for upgrades as new versions come out. It was this question that dogged the industry?s former networking software kingpin. As Novell struggled to come to terms with all the technology it had taken on board in the heady days of former boss Ray Noorda, including the ill-starred Wordperfect deal, it seemed clear that it had lost focus on its core Netware business and was losing market share at an alarming rate to Windows NT. Thus it came as a surprise to no one that Novell began 1996 by divesting itself of Wordperfect and virtually any other products that did not relate to the company?s core networking business. But the Wordperfect deal appeared to have been too little, too late as Novell took so long to shop the products around that Ottawa-based Corel was eventually able to pick up the Wordperfect franchise for very little. In April, I attended Novell?s annual Brainshare user conference in Salt Lake City and heard then-CEO Bob Frankenberg talk about how the firm was getting back to basics and admitting it had been too slow in getting out new versions of Netware. He also talked a lot about how Novell was already heavily involved in Internet businesses and just needed to jump-start its efforts in this direction to go further. He also got quite testy when reporters suggested to him that Novell was losing market share to Windows NT at large corporate customer sites ? even offering to go with a reporter and visit a particular site where it was alleged that a corporation had defected to Windows NT. But in the end, Frankenberg did not survive the year at Novell. In many ways, it was a case of the nice guy finishing last. When he was ousted in August and replaced by former HP boss John Young and supersalesman Joe Marengi, it appeared partly to be a result of Frankenberg being a little too patient and kind to do the tough things the Novell board felt needed doing. But Corel has taken as many positives from its stewardship of the Wordperfect product line as Novell has negatives. Within a few months of taking it over, Corel rolled out its first version of a revamped Wordperfect suite for W95 and took the lead position in some industry rankings of office suite sales over the summer when many were ready to write the products off as a lost cause. Corel was helped by a number of key factors. The first is that IBM has been less than aggressive in selling and further developing its Lotus Smartsuite products ? seemingly interested in using them as a bundled enticement to buy IBM-branded PCs. Second, Corel has a great distribution infrastructure in place that is more used to selling and heavily promoting a product like Wordperfect than Novell ever was. Third, Corel has CEO Michael Cowpland ? a British ex-pat with a North American sense of showmanship and an enthusiasm for taking on Bill Gates in the productivity software market when no one else really wanted to. Of course, it also helps that the product itself appears to be pretty good ? winning measured praise from reviewers and enthusiastic greetings for many who wanted to have a credible, Windows 95-based alternative to MS Office 95. Even though it is barely old enough to be properly toilet-trained, Netscape Communications found by mid-summer that it would have to cut short any thoughts of an extended infancy if it were to survive to corporate adulthood. The firm quickly discovered it needed to broaden its product line and become a credible player with major corporations if it were to survive the sustained competitive onslaught coming from MS. And that it has quite definitely done, making many product acquisitions as well as releasing Web server software, productivity applications for helping to build Web pages and manage Web sites and a host of related products. It has also spun off a new company ? Navio ? to help put Web technology into all kinds of devices including handheld computers. We are also seeing a lot more of the seasoned players at Netscape, with Jim Barksdale spending more time as front-man for the company, rather than the young and affable Marc Andriesson. Although Andriesson may have co-founded the company with ex-Silicon Graphics chief Jim Clark, he has been smart enough to realise ? or perhaps been made to realise ? that experienced hands will help him avoid many of the mistakes that have plagued dozens of other rise and flame startups from Silicon Valley over the past decade. The year began with many questioning whether Intel could maintain its hold on the chip market as a number of key manufacturers started experimenting with processors from other vendors. AMD and Cyrix were key beneficiaries of this trend as computer makers looked for a way to get themselves a reliable ?second source? for Pentium-class processors. But over the past year it has become clear the Intel inside campaign for the Pentium has taken a firm hold in the public mind ? so much so that many corporate buyers were not willing to settle for 586-class processors when they could have a real Pentium from Intel. The huge stratification of the Pentium product line, with offerings at many different processor speeds and prices, has also made it easier for most PC manufacturers to be able to stay with Intel without suffering a massive hit for processor costs. But Intel has not had things all its own way, and almost missed the boat on a potentially huge opportunity late this year. When Microsoft announced the first round of supporters for it Windows CE operating system being used on the latest round of handheld computers, Intel was nowhere in sight. It?s the first time Intel has allowed a platform to slip from its grasp through inattention. The mistake was rectified a few weeks later when Intel jumped on the Windows CE bandwagon in time for the annual Comdex Fall show in Las Vegas ? but not before its Risc-based competitors managed to ensure their systems would be in the hands of eager users before Christmas while Intel would not get its chip into Windows CE until early 1997. Probably the biggest lesson to learn from 1996 was not drawn from the experiences of an individual company or the release of a single product ? it was the emergence of Web time. This is simply an expression designed to convey the way in which the Web has helped to vastly condense computer product lifecycles and increase the demand on designers, manufacturers and retailers. Nowhere is this more true than in the software arena, where the dizzying pace of development has been hastened by the practice of releasing free updates on the Web. MS and Netscape?s rapid development of new versions of their browsers is only the highest profile example of this. Many sampler versions of products such as MS Money 97, Publisher 97 and Front Page 97 were offered free to users as an enticement to buy. As the impact of Web time increases throughout 1997, it is clear that dealers, Vars and distributors will have to play close attention to this trend and develop their own clear strategies for handling electronic software distribution ? or they will inevitably be crushed by the move towards it.
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