March 10, 1997

This PC Week
Does Netscape know something most of us don't?
By John Dodge

  Does Netscape have a death wish? Or does it know something that Microsoft and IBM/Lotus don't?

  Borland founder and former Chairman Philippe Kahn could take an educated guess. Speaking from his own experience, he points out that the high-tech highway is littered with carnage from the Microsoft semi. Netscape not only chooses to compete head-on with Lotus and Microsoft, it also goes after their greatest strengths.

For instance, Netscape's new HyperTree directory in its future client software, code-named Mercury, sounds like Novell Directory Services or a network version of Windows Explorer. Netscape also is pushing replication, functionality that was popularized and arguably invented by Lotus. And Netscape is now talking up an object store. Didn't Lotus coin the term years ago in developing a text database for Notes?

A resurgent Lotus has become so frustrated--or threatened--that it published a document listing a dozen alleged falsehoods spread around by Netscape. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between each side of the story. Or somewhere north of Neptune.

Each side is moving so fast with new clients and servers that it's difficult for customers to tell exactly what is going on. Netscape is talking about its newest client when its slightly less-new client, Communicator, just entered beta testing. When you're midway through testing Communicator, Mercury will enter beta tests, racing toward general availability less than a year from now.

I suppose Lotus has the advantage of continuity. Notes and even Domino feel like the proverbial comfortable old shoe. On the other hand, Netscape is unencumbered by legacy except that it's still largely viewed as a browser company.

One IT executive user interprets Netscape's product road map, described on our front page, as an attempt to "put workflow applications onto extranets." Heretofore, workflow lived within the traditional boundaries of a company and perhaps a handful of customers or partners. Intimate and confidential activities occurring between a half-dozen companies or even a single company and thousands of its customers hold great promise. However, the deliverables have enjoyed the punctuality of an Amtrak train schedule.

After all, what is workflow? The definition that resonates with me is "automation of transactions in time" (courtesy of Martin Sprinzen, CEO and president of Forte Software). Given the public and free-form nature of the Internet, intranet workflow applications using the Internet as a transport mechanism cannot guarantee performance. A claims processing application that continually times out won't cut it.

Workflow on the Internet cannot afford to produce work stoppages. In this respect, the Internet, as equalizer, is as much a challenge as an opportunity.

Some observers have written off Netscape, claiming it lacks the resources, global presence or franchise of a Lotus/IBM or Microsoft. But one thing it does have that many of the companies run over by Microsoft didn't have is a coherent vision. Whatever the end result for Netscape and its customers, it's almost a certainty that many of its ideas will live on. Which probably bodes well for the company itself.

But no wonder Netscape is using intergalactic code words. I only hope it is taking customers toward brave new worlds, and not down a giant black hole.

Death wish or a viable strategy for Netscape? Which is it? Write me at

Copyright(c) 1997 Ziff-Davis Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff-Davis Publishing Company is prohibited. PC Week and the PC Week logo are trademarks of Ziff-Davis Publishing Company. PC Week Online and the PC Week Online logo are trademarks of Ziff-Davis Publishing Company.

Send mail to PC Week