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An Open Letter to Netscape
Last week's announcement that you will give away your browser, all of your browser, inspired quite a bit of unbridled joy in the Internet developer community. But I would advise that before you go patting yourselves on your collective back for this (non-revenue generating) strategic decision, you spend some time reading the tea leaves of the industry, in the form of Jim Carlton's recent book on Apple.
In "Apple : The Inside Story of Intrigue, Egomania, and Business Blunders," Carlton lets the accusations fly and the dirty laundry flap just like that mythical pirate flag atop the Macintosh developer bunker. Yet his central theme is painfully clear:
Carlton lays the blame for Apple's troubles on the shoulders of the men and women who built brand recognition when they should have been building market share. Probably because he lacks technical expertise, he neglects to mention the fact that in 1993, the best Internet applications on the planet (Fetch, Anarchie, Eudora, MacMosaic, NCSA Telnet, and NewsWatcher) were only available on the Mac. They were all made by developers who loved the Mac. And they were all freeware. Years later, they're still some of the best Internet applications on the planet. For the most part, they haven't changed at all. Why? Because Apple didn't get the Internet, sure, but they didn't get their developers, either.
It would be wise for you to heed this lesson, especially as you embark on the Great Code Giveaway of 1998. Remember that despite pleas from the intranet developer community for a standalone Navigator, free from the bloat of mail- and news-readers, it took you over two years to unbundle, and then only on threat of trouble from partner IBM, who rightly saw Communicator as a knife to the throat of Lotus SmartSuite. And now, this latest announcement, received both as a return to the glory days of cooperative, networked development and the harbinger of new trends in software business models, was only spurred on by the shellacking you've taken at the hands of Microsoft and their giveaway browser.
Don't worry about those naysayers who decry your lack of an articulated strategy. Don't worry that Microsoft will bury you under obscurantist DLLs. Worry about the fact that in order to succeed with Internet and intranet developers, you need to deliver a cross-platform foundation for the next generation of applications, what you call "crossware." We're trying to build crossware - today. To say nothing of the superficial but costly effects of poor CSS implementations and unsightly dithering, or the failure to provide support for the network-spawned PNG graphics standard.
Giving away your source code opens up all sorts of possibilities for end-user browser-customization. But it does not relieve you from your primary responsibility as a "platform" vendor: listening to your developers, and providing a stable code base full of features that will enable us to deliver on your crossware vision. Make sure this latest move isn't an abdication, but rather a firm step into the future. Display the leadership which the developer community demands from a truly standards-driven company.
-- Steven Champeon is a consultant with hesketh.com/inc. He specializes in the design of large-scale intranet and Web site architectures.
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