Software Sabers Drawn in Pivotal Duel for the Internet
LOOKING at newsmagazine covers or television recently, one may think that Bill Gates is everywhere. From the introduction of Windows 95 to the publication of his new book, "The Road Ahead," the billionaire founder of computer software megafirm Microsoft Corp. has been touted as the man who will dictate the future of the "information highway."
But to California's Silicon Valley whizkids, Mr. Gates and Microsoft are would-be monopolists who are desperately trying to contain a revolution that threatens its dominance. On Monday, three of the hottest firms in the valley made what amounts to a joint declaration of war on Microsoft, announcing a collaboration designed to make a new software technology the standard for the Internet's World Wide Web.
Today, Gates fires back, unveiling plans for Blackbird and Gibraltar, two rival Internet products.
Analysts see these moves as the latest skirmishes in a long battle over the direction of the industry. At stake are not only competing products but widely differing concepts of how consumers will travel the information highway.
"A lot of the battle is political and a lot is geographical - the Silicon Valley mentality precludes the Microsoft mentality," says Allen Weiner, who analyzes the Internet for Dataquest, a San Jose, Calif.-based research firm. "Just look at the way Windows 95 was rolled out - very controlled, very orchestrated," he says, contrasting it with the "Wild West, entrepreneurial" culture of Silicon Valley.
The entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley embrace an anarchic image of the Internet, a worldwide network of interlinked computers that they see as almost beyond the control of any single government or company. They spin a vision of the world in which the average person, linked through the network by a TV set or computer can access everything from movies to the contents of the Harvard University library.
The promise of such a world has gained credibility during the last year with the development of Web "browsers," which opened the Internet to tens of millions of users.
The Web is a subsection of the Internet, adding splashy graphics to plain text, along with a software system that allows the 'Web surfer' to zip from one information site to another. The Web, and the companies involved in exploiting its commercial potential as a vast marketplace, has caught the imagination of Wall Street and home-computer users.
"What it comes down to now is who is going to be best at presenting a vision for the Internet," says Mr. Weiner. "Microsoft has yet to express a coherent strategy."
Microsoft has pursued a far different concept of information systems - the closed, proprietary network that packages information for the consumer. Every copy of Windows 95 which is becoming the de facto standard for desktop computers, contains a link to its own Microsoft Network. Rival networks, such as America Online, complain that this amounts to a de facto monopoly, a charge being investigated by the US Justice Department.
Some analysts see the Web as a potential threat to Microsoft's dominance. The most popular and powerful browser, Netscape, has managed in a less than a year to capture 70 percent of the market, becoming the standard-setter.
Java is aimed at spreading rapidly as the industry standard. It will work with any computer system regardless of what operating system it uses. And the developers are making it open and licensable to anyone, encouraging software developers to come out with new applications as quickly as possible. Already some 30 major firms have endorsed Java.
The Blackbird product expected to be outlined today, is an on-line publishing system that competes, in some ways, with Java. Developers say the program will only run on computers using Microsoft software. It represents millions of dollars in potential sales. But analysts say it's unlikely that Microsoft will dominate the Internet as it has personal computing.
It's Java's ability to run on any machine that threatens Microsoft. Why buy Microsoft software - or a personal computer - if all one wants to do is browse the Web? Some companies, such as Oracle Corp. and IBM, are touting the idea that consumers may soon access the Internet with a stripped down $500 Internet viewer or specially equipped TV.
And Java's heralded advantage of being able to work on any computer system may not be much of an edge. If eight out of 10 of the world's desktop computers run on Microsoft's Windows program, there's little advantage to running on anything else, says Patrick Naughton, vice president of a Bellevue, Wash., Web developer and former Sun engineer.
"The key is to wrest developers away from Windows," says Dataquest's Weiner. "Whether it becomes the platform for the Internet remains to be seen. I'm sure Microsoft is not going to take this lying down." But he allows that Blackbird's success may now depend on the endorsement of Netscape.
"They can come play," Silicon Graphics president Tom Jermoluk says with a slight smile. "They've just got to play on the same terms as everybody else."
*Staff writer Laurent Belsie contributed to this report.