Will Netscape's browser info help or hinder?

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Mark your calendar: On March 31 the Web will be changed forever. Whether it changes for better or worse remains to be seen.

What's happening? By that day, Netscape Communications Corp. has promised to release the source code -- the very blueprint -- of its popular Communicator Web browser free to the world.

It's a drastic move and shifts the Web landscape fundamentally. For Netscape, on the heels of an awful earnings report and unremitting market pressure from Microsoft, it was either an act of desperation or genius. Or perhaps a bit of both.

This is big news, but what does it mean? And how does it affect you?

What it means is that any developer in the world -- from a garage-bound hacker to the software crew of a Fortune 500 company -- can take the Netscape browser and change it, add to it, or alter it any way they see fit. They can then keep the changes to themselves, offer them to the world for free or profit, or deliver them to Netscape for possible inclusion in the next "official" version of Netscape Communicator.

Breath of fresh air

For Internet developers, this is like a breath of fresh air. You can almost hear them rejoicing.

Plus, free software is not without its successes. The Apache Web server, which continues to host more than 50% of all Internet domains, is a free software project. So is the Linux operating system, less well known but still significant.

But the question is: Does this hacker's dream translate to the masses? Will it help your corporation build better Web sites and applications? And will it help users in the form of significant new browser innovations? Needless to say the jury is out.

The larger question: Is this dream of an innovative, freely developed and widely distributed Web browser actually a nightmare in disguise? Will we see 1,000 browsers supporting untold features with little documentation and even less consistency?

If you thought writing your Web pages to support Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer was tough, imagine having to target even more browsers, each tweaked by its developer to his heart's content.

The bet here is that for mainstream marketers and Web content providers, this is more of a hassle than a godsend. Web sites are already having enough trouble keeping up with the pace of technology. And integrating technology -- a Web server from this vendor, ad server and analysis tool from that vendor, etc. -- is perhaps the biggest challenge and expense that burgeoning Web businesses face.

That's why Microsoft's offer is so appealing. Forget about integrating technology, Microsoft says, buy it all from us, it runs on Windows NT and all works together right out of the box. It may not be the slickest technology, but it works.

Online marketers have already been playing the role of technology pioneers. Leading-edge Web sites have typically had to home-grow their technology solutions because they've been so far out ahead of the market. Think of Pathfinder's home-grown publishing system, or Starwave's Java site tools.

Are you willing to bet the future of your online business on a free software development model and the staying power of Netscape to oversee and turn a profit with this risky new venture? I doubt it.

That doesn't mean it won't be fun to watch. And it doesn't mean I'd be delighted to be proven wrong. Everyone on the Web can benefit from better, more innovative software. But whose online survival interests you moreƅ"Netscape's or your own? u

Richard Karpinski is editor at large for Internet Week and author of "Beyond HTML" from publisher Osborne/McGraw Hill.

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