- eWeek : Is the Netscape Browser Being Reborn or Just Stabilized?. Our friend Stephen Donner agrees, apparently
- According to Moosh, Nvu was mentioned twice recently in the "Cybercafé 2.0" show on the Belgian french-speaking national TV (RTBF)
Click below to see the full text of my email eWeek interview
1. Netscape is apparently set to launch Navigator 7.2 in early May, its first browser release since mid 2003 and after it ended development by spinning out Mozilla. How significant is Netscape's decision to release an upgrade to the overall browser market? Do you expect it to have any significant new features/changes?
I don't expect significant new features for two different reasons:
- AOL does not have any more the workforce to make significant changes. AOL laid off almost all Netscape engineering in two steps, first in december 2002, then in july 2003 (that one hit me). Engineers that were not let go at these occasions were laid off in december 2003. Only remain a few people, dispatched on various AOL projects and apparently they were not reassigned to work on Netscape's browser. So AOL has really nobody to do the job and relies probably heavily on contractors for the time being.
- when AOL says it wants to release a new Netscape browser, there are really two non-exclusive options here:
improve the browser's core. I mean improve the way it browses the Web, making its layout engine smaller and faster, implementing more Web standards and so on. That requires a lot of knowledge of Mozilla's architecture and code, and people with that knowledge are not so common on the market. And AOL will probably face negative reactions if it tries to re-hire the people it laid off. After all, AOL never really understood Netscape, undervalued it and never used it. In 2003, AOL shipped AOL Communicator with Gecko inside (and dropped it afterwards in favor of Microsoft's engine despite of its weakness), and even before that shipped Compuserve for Mac with Gecko inside. A few other new projects - I was working on one of them - were using Mozilla and Gecko. All were very brutally stopped when AOL signed a $750M deal with Microsoft. AOL axed its Innovation Center at the same time, and that's probably the best indicator you can find about how AOL deals with its market and tries to keep it afloat.
AOL stabbed Netscape in the back with a big axe and the former Netscape engineers have not forgotten or forgiven. Most of us were very sad to leave Netscape, and happy to leave AOL.
- integrate add-ons. Forthcoming release of Netscape will probably be based on Mozilla 1.7, the new major release of Mozilla. AIM, ICQ and the other add-ons that were in Netscape 7.1 will be here; other add-ons could be very easily integrated if they remain at the chrome level, ie if they don't imply writing c++ code. That could provide the user with interesting new features but will not represent a significant change in terms of underlying technologies.
I think the reasons why AOL launches 7.2 are complex, I'll detail them below. In my opinion, Netscape 7.2 new features will be Mozilla 1.7 new features.
2. How do your read Netscape's move? Does it seem to mark a return to focusing on the browser or do you view it as part of another strategy from AOL and Netscape?
AOL faces a very agressive competition from other network providers (even internally to Time Warner with RoadRunner...), it hardly competes with long-established telcos in Europe, and its core market (modem-based internet connectivity) is decreasing at fast pace. It also provides its users with a web/mail client that did not follow users' increasing knowledge and usage of the Internet. Ten years ago, a weak mail client like the AOL mail client was enough for most customers; ten years later, they learned a lot, use the Internet all the time for personal purposes and work, and they need more than the AOL client. It evolved a little bit, but too slowly to meet users' expectations.
So AOL needs desperately to attract more customers, and that can be done only
- offering better technology. The AOL web/IM/mail client is an aggregative structure. It has grown in circles, like the trunk of a tree. It's backwards compatible with its very early versions and it's an ENORMOUS piece of software. A disruption is needed and the AOL client as it is cannot offer it. Netscape built an AOL client on Gecko (and that would have allowed XUL add-ons, and very cool new features) but AOL never shipped it. That's a mid- to long-term strategy, the one the Netscape division was pursuing, and the only one caring about the future of AOL as a technology provider. In other terms, to survive, AOL needs to organize its own internal competitor that will eventually become AOL's core.
- offering new services that make people visit AOL web sites, increasing the advertisement revenues and pushing the AOL technologies. For that, AOL needs a portal and the only efficient one it has is Netscape.com... But people who no longer have the Netscape browser on their computer are not going to visit netscape.com just because it exists. AOL needs a browser having netscape.com as its default home page. The Netscape Desktop Navigator, the circular Flash-based thingy AOL released in beta version recently, tries to do the same. Use the celebrity of Netscape's name, attracting people to AOL web sites and services.
AOL's decision to kill Netscape, and today to revive it, is also an indicator of some kind of fierce struggle inside AOL. Two visions are fighting, and probably two persons too. One of these could be David Gang, backed by J.Miller. The other one could be Ted Leonsis himself. He said "I am like a cockroach that survives the nuclear winter. I feel I understand the heart of the service and that I can add value. As I put it, we are out to do the three R's: reset, revitalize, reconceptualize.". Whether Leonsis plays or not that game with someone else is another question I leave open to your insight
3. How do you account for Netscape's about-face--having ended development last year only to revive it now by apparently making use of Mozilla and the Mozilla 1.7 code base?
I think I answered that question above. And I don't neglect the fact that corporations take sometimes totally stupid and counter-productive decisions...
What impact do you think its decision to still do browser releases will have on the broader effort to take on Microsoft and Internet Explorer?
Microsoft has changed its strategy. It announced the end of Internet Explorer as a free product, and the user will have to pay for the new versions of the browser. That will almost certainly extinguish a number of potential lawsuits, and generate some revenues from the IE division that has always been only a center of cost, but it could also drastically decrease Microsoft's browser market share. So there's now a nice opportunity for other browsers, including Mozilla with its Application Suite and Firefox.
Netscape will also compete with Mozilla... Only corporations needing an all-in-one software suite and people wanting to integrate AIM/ICQ to the browser are going to use Netscape. Firefox is smaller, faster and better. Get Firefox!
In my humble opinion, AOL has really only one choice : make a new improved AOL client, aimed at advanced users while the current AOL client is aimed at beginners, based on Mozilla and Gecko. The key thing here is "stop being backwards compatible and move forward". If AOL does not do that, MSN will eventually kill it. Or gobble it
That was AOL Communicator's goal. But you can use it only if you have an AOL account (that's soooo stupid), it dropped Gecko in favor of MSIE, uses wxWindows instead of XUL so it's not extensible by downloadable add-ons. In other terms, that's a sustaining technology, not a disruptive one.
One element of uncertainty is Tasman, the excellent layout engine of MacIE. Microsoft announced the end of MacIE too but Tasman is still alive in MSN for Mac and was successfully built on many platforms, including Windows and Windows CE.
Microsoft is not dropping IE as a free product having a 90% market share without a good reason and a good vision. Never neglect the fact that Microsoft has the ability, the power and the brains to surprise us...
4. Have you tried or tested the new Netscape version? What are your impressions of it?
No I have not. As far as I know, no pre-release is available yet.
Thanks again, Daniel, for your help.