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Funding the Grist for the Mill
Aug 19, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

Remember the deluge? It began with Netscape Navigator 1.1, when Netscape hijacked the HTML standards and implemented tags that the other browser makers didn't have. I'm not talking about the deluge of people rushing to Netscape's FTP site to download the latest and greatest.

I'm talking about the deluge of free advertising that Netscape garnered around the web: "This site is optimized for Netscape Navigator."

Netscape caught on quickly and encouraged this behavior, by placing nice postage-stamp sized logos on their web site screaming "Netscape Now!" These little GIFs were ripe for the picking by web producers looking to put a little corporate cachet on their site. And soon Netscape had their name, their corporate identity and (usually) a link to their site all over the web.

Netscape continued to add support for useful features for web designers into their browser (background colors, font colors & sizes, frames, animated GIFs, Java, etc.), and web sites took advantage of them. Meanwhile, the gap between the Netscape-haves and the Netscape have-nots widened. Netscape gained market- and mind- share, while other browsers languished in obscurity.

Netscape's strategy seemed to be just as much content driven as it was browser driven. If the major (and minor) web sites were including tags which only displayed in Netscape browers, then more people would use Navigator. In a way, it was very grass roots -- let the web designers "sell" your software with a little extra code they could use (does the <center> tag come to mind?) to improve the look of their site.

The problem with this strategy is that the foundation upon which the web is built is relatively open. The official specs for HTML are managed by the W3C, and Java virtual machine technology is easily licensed from Sun.

Thus, when the "sleeping giant" in Redmond awoke and went "hard core" about the Internet, it didn't take long for them to catch up. Last week, Internet Explorer was officially released, and it's the first browser to challenge Navigator. IE supports frames and cascading style sheets, loads pages and compiles Java content very quickly, and has support for Microsoft's new brand of interactive web content -- Active X (which is really just another way to spell OLE).

Thanks to the relatively simple and level playing field of Internet technology, Microsoft was able to catch up and level the browser battlefield. Plus, in an interesting move, and one most likely intended to placate the Justice Department, Microsoft offered to put the specs for their Active X technology under the care and feeding of Internet standards bodies.

Now, Microsoft probably won't be able to wrest the market share from Netscape so easily, especially without a Mac, Unix or Windows 3.1 client. But how are they beating the drums for IE? How are they trying to displace Netscape's mind share, if not their market share? Through content, of course. It's deja vu all over again.

Microsoft is heavily pushing the adoption of Active X controls on high profile web sites. Everyone expected the "best viewed with Internet Explorer" suggestion on Slate, the Bill branded political journal from Michael Kinsely. But who expected to see it on at the Wall Street Journal?

Microsoft announced last week that they've paid The Wall Street Journal, ESPN Sportzone and to give IE 3.0 users access to premium content for five whole months. Plus, dozens of others are planning Active X content that will only run on IE 3.0. (I should say will only run on IE 3.0 until Netscape bends and includes support for Active X content in Navigator.)

Microsoft funding the "optimized" phrase with free premium content for web surfers is a perfect example of how the web has changed since the days of "Best viewed with Netscape 1.1". Netscape, with some quick and easy features, encouraged a bottom up, grass roots "advertising" campaign on web sites ranging from Widget Inc.'s Corporate Site to Billy Joe's Home Page. Now that the web is a much more consumer-oriented place, where big names get big hits, and advertising and content blend seamlessly, the grass roots approach will most likely lead to, well, not much more than grass clippings. Consumers need a stronger reason to switch than scrolling text banners, and $80 worth of premium sports, news and stock information will definitely help.

In the "old days," the grist (content) helped fund the mill (the browser). Now the mill is funding the grist to help fund the mill.

And what's really interesting is that Microsoft, by funding information providers to develop content that will display correctly only on Microsoft's browser, has essentially created a miniature proprietary online service within the Internet.

Hmmm. Do the letters MSN come to mind?



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