Bill Gates is putting a brave face on it, but his company has never been under greater threat than it is today. The thing that's giving him a headache is the Internet, and its corporate manifestation, the intranet.
The Net is turning the PC and Lan worlds upside down, and the market leaders in those fields won't necessarily adapt to the new conditions.
Everything is up for grabs on the Net, and as in all gold rushes, people start acting feverishly and doing silly things. Microsoft has managed to keep a relatively cool head, and has worked out a masterplan for getting momentum going behind its Internet/intranet offerings. But the market is still divided over who is going to win the War of the Browsers - Microsoft or Netscape - and become king of the Internet.
Gates acknowledges that these are special times, both inside and outside Microsoft. The other week, in a worldwide intranet strategy briefing, he said: 'About six months ago, we had an event that really kicked off our focus on taking the Internet capabilities and building them into the PC world. It's been a very exciting six months.'
LET INTRANET EQUAL FUN
Gates added: 'I'd say it's the most fun six-month period I've had since the start of Microsoft. It's really invigorating to see the creativity not only within the engineering group, but also in customers when they see that, for the first time, this is going to make information easily accessible.'
Everything is at stake, and Microsoft cannot afford to embark on the wrong mission. It marched off in the wrong direction with the Microsoft Network (MSN), but executed a fast retreat and didn't throw good money after bad once it realised its mistake. Last week it even managed to turn the MSN debacle into a great victory by announcing the software it had developed to control the MSN customer base and its online services will now be packaged as a separate product. Code-named 'Normandy' - the significance of which will strike a chord with quite a few war strategy enthusiasts - it will be aimed at ISPs, network operators, cable companies and commercial Web sites. The first buyer is none other than former MSN arch-rival, Compuserve, which means the return on the investment will be partly funded by the former opposition. Nice one.
MS' intranet message is a compelling one that speaks to corporates in their language. It plays on central concerns about the cost of implementing new systems against the cost of extending existing ones. Throughout his 90-minute presentation, Gates constantly came back to this theme.
He talked about the need to 'bring together all the computer investments that have been made and have come so far and all of the benefits of the Internet revolution'.
For Microsoft, this great merger of desktop applications and Internet technologies will involve a synthesis of Internet Explorer and the Windows 95 shell, so that the information on the desktop and information on the Internet/intranet will look integrated. The forthcoming Office 97 suite will also have integrated Web collaboration and publishing facilities.
Microsoft's missionary zeal is being focused centrally on reassuring corporates that the intranet will not mean massive retraining of staff, who already use Office products, but will be an extension of existing investments. The products will be cheap, because these Internet facilities will all be incorporated into W95, the Office suite and NT Server more or less free of charge.
These are compelling ideas for corporates considering which path to take for their intranet investments, and, not surprisingly, Netscape has been quick to respond. It has put an extensive white paper up on its Web site (none of the costly satellite links beaming Bill Gates around the world for Netscape) to map out its vision of the brave new intranet world.
The company is focusing its pitch for corporate Web business on the concept of the 'full service intranet', which allows it to talk about services rather than products. Netscape boss Marc Andreessen says: 'Simply put, a full service intranet is a TCP/IP network inside a company that links the company's people and information in a way that makes people more productive, information more accessible, and navigation through all the resources and applications of the company's computing environment more seamless than ever before.'
Netscape provides an impressive list of corporate customers that are using its intranet products - from McDonnell Douglas and Mobil to AT&T and Olivetti - and stresses that its range delivers both flexibility and an open, non-proprietary environment. Andreessen says: 'Unlike systems such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange, Netscape Navigator and the Suite Spot servers form a flexible set of components that can be deployed in any way you want over your network. Netscape does not force you to install and manage components that you don't need.'
Above all, Netscape stresses its suitability to highly heterogeneous IT environments in corporates, which use a variety of client/server environments, databases and legacy systems. 'Navigator is available on Windows 3.1, 95 and NT, and Unix and Macintosh platforms. Suite Spot is available on Windows NT and all the popular versions of Unix, so you can run your intranet on any combination of hardware and operating systems,' says Andreessen.
This talk of Microsoft offering proprietary systems is the one thing that rankles Gates. He devoted a considerable section of his briefing to addressing the issue without really offering an answer to his critics.
RANKLE AND BILE
Gates knows many big firms are grateful for the fact that Microsoft's PC operating systems freed them from the tyranny of a single hardware supplier. The non-proprietary argument used to work in his favour, but now it's not so simple. MS' intranet vision is so closely tied to Windows 95 that there seems to be little room for any other OS - not even Windows 3.1 or Macintosh. Netscape knows this can blow big holes in Microsoft's argument that its intranet plans will support existing investments.
But Gates scored a hit by blowing open Netscape's claim to support open Web standards. Lately, Netscape has been a bit more circumspect about some of the things it's doing. Gates said: 'Netscape have been doing a lot of things to Java script. We'd like to see a specification for that.
We'd like to see that done in an open way. They don't talk about HTML anymore. They talk about the Netscape Navigator format. But we think they should continue to work with W3C and use that to guide things. They've been making extensions to LDAP, but not going through those standards committees. We hope they'll do it the way we do it, through those committees.'
That may be a forlorn hope as Netscape has, as it keeps pointing out, a big installed base for the Navigator client - as much as 85 per cent of the market, according to some researchers - and it has momentum in the server market.
Microsoft wants to be the big cheese in both markets and its playing a hard game. If the only way of keeping ahead of Microsoft involves abandoning the publication of open standards, Netscape may well choose to keep a few secrets to itself. After all, in war and in competitive markets, you give the enemy as little information as possible.
TO HTML AND BACK AGAIN
Anyone running both Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer under Windows 95 will have noticed how the two tussle for superiority as the default browser if Netscape was installed first. Every time Internet Explorer is opened, a dialog box pops up to ask whether it should be made the default. It's worded in such a way as to beg the answer yes, and once that's clicked, Netscape takes a back seat. Click on any HTML file on your hard disk and it will automatically launch Internet Explorer.
Microsoft is focusing a lot of effort on becoming the number one browser supplier. To do that it's making the product a giveaway, whereas Netscape still technically charges for its browser, although it can be downloaded free of charge. Microsoft is also putting a great deal of money into getting Web developers to go with Active X controls on their sites and use HTML tags unique to Internet Explorer, such as marquee, cell colour and bgsound.
All over the Net, sites are springing up with 'best viewed under Internet Explorer' buttons on them.
But Netscape does have a technical lead on Microsoft that it's using to its advantage. For instance, it implemented the powerful frames facility in Navigator 2, many months ago, while Microsoft has only just incorporated support for it in Internet Explorer 3 - only now coming out of beta. Netscape's mail facility, shoddy though it is in parts, is a constant reminder that Internet Explorer is lagging far behind on this front.
Things are due to get far hotter later this year. Both firms are talking up their plans for their browsers with gusto.
Internet Explorer 4, code-named Nashville and due out before the end of the year, will integrate the browser with the desktop. Web pages using Active X controls will be as interactive and as powerful as any file created on a desktop application. Internet Explorer and the Windows 95 Explorer will become one, so that files on the hard disk will seem equivalent to files on servers on the Internet/intranet. Added to this will be Net Meeting, for file sharing over the intranet.
Not to be outdone, Netscape has released details of Galileo, aka Navigator 4, also due out by the end year. It will have communication and collaboration facilities that it says will outshine Lotus Notes; email and discussion group enhancements, such as drag and drop editing of messages in HTML, and it will integrate the LDAP directory services. On top of that there will be Java extensions, automatic plug-ins and 3D layered frames.
With both sides promising so much, it may still be at least 12 months before the dust settles and a winner emerges. But one thing's for certain: it could well develop into a fight to the death.
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