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<nettime> contribution for a net.history

         A Piece of the Action

    It's bad enough when technical
     squabbles percolate from the
    bowels of the technology sector
    into the mainstream press. But
    when a mere war of words turns
   urgent distinctions into more of
     a tactical squabble, all the
    wrong people usually win. These
   days, those who can least afford
    to lose are being splayed over
    the increasingly banal brawl of
    "Java vs. ActiveX." As early as
   a year ago, the average observer
     confronted with this dualism
   might infer an obscure courtroom
    battle between Juan Valdez and
          the makers of adult
    undergarments. These days, it's
    threatening to mean much, much

     Feuding between Microsoft and
    Netscape is nothing new, but at
   some point, the sundry issues of
         competitive corporate
       positioning collapse into
   fundamental questions of access:
      users' access to software,
    software's access to computers,
     and companies' access to our

    The untold story of Netscape's
      ascent was their serpentine
    throttling of distribution - of
     content, plug-ins, software,
     everything. It's a tale worth
     telling, if only because the
     looming success of Microsoft
   threatens to mark an end to this
    stillborn era. But the telling
   begs a rewrite of the industry's
         adolescent history...

    Already the darling of Silicon
   Valley after a few short months,
   Netscape's browser had attracted
     interest from Sun, Macromedia
    and Adobe, all of whom promptly
   announced deals with Netscape to
      integrate their respective
   technologies (Java, Acrobat, and
    Director) into future versions
       of the browser. And every
     software start-up on the net
     wanted in on the action, too.

     The folly in the Valley stems
   from these original deals. We'll
       put forward this entirely
   plausible scenario: Orchestrated
    behind the scenes by John Doerr
     of Kleiner Perkins, the deals
     with Netscape were more about
    building a "keiretsu" (which in
        our Japanese dictionary
    translates as "Old Boys' Club")
       than about creating a new
      marketplace for small-time
    software developers. The deals
      were easily inked and duly
     submitted to PR Newswire, but
        some of the partners -
    Macromedia in particular - ran
      into "execution" problems.
    Namely, their code wouldn't be
       ready for Netscape's 2.0

   The Netscape Plug-In API offered
       a convenient solution: a
    standard way for programmers to
       hook their apps into the
   browser. When Macromedia finally
     released Shockwave, the code
       could be plopped into the
       browser at any time. Even
   better, the Plug-In API would be
      published, so all the other
    developers could theoretically
      whistle their ways towards
      similarly auspicious goals.
    Posting the specs on an obscure
    part of their site, the boys at
    Netscape considered the problem

      And they were almost right.
    Overnight, there were a hundred
    plug-ins, with more on the way
     all the time. One can imagine
       Clark, Barksdale, Doerr,
    marketing VP Mike Homer, and a
     grinning, drooling Andreessen
   around the boardroom in Mountain
        View company. After an
     appropriately dramatic pause,
           the CEO intones:

        Homer, who had a bit of
       experience with marketing
    operating systems at Apple, no
       doubt outlines a strategy
     straight from the pages of an
         Apple business plan:

   The roster of plug-ins listed on
    Netscape's website grew, as did
      the number of newspaper and
     magazine articles proclaiming
     that "the browser is the OS."
     And if you asked any plug-in
   developer how business is going,
     you'd hear the same reply...

   "Not much yet, but we're going to
    get CNET to use our plug-in on
     their website, and downloads
      will go through the roof."

   At the major websites, the lines
     trailed around the corner for
    plug-in pitchmen touting an end
    to the limits of HTML or "even
        better compression than
     Shockwave." Most smart sites
   sent them packing; the ones that
   didn't soon found their customer
   support desks flooded with email
    and phone calls from perplexed
    users, whose browsers presented
      them with the cryptic error

     At Netscape, though, all was
   going according to plan. Plug-in
    developers were sorted into two
    groups, the ones who got money
    and the ones who gave it. To be
     sure, revenues were going to
      exceed expenses in this new
   profit center. Played right, the
    protection money paid by ISVs,
        "independent" software
     vendors, could dwarf the haul
     from Netscape's search engine
            payola scheme.

       The concept had ingenious
     Step 1 - Open the technology.
   Step 2 - Close the distribution.
       Step 3 - The tricky part:
        Convince everyone that
    distribution is more open than
      ever, but only if Microsoft
      would stay out of the way.

   The plan worked so well that Sun
   decided to use the same strategy
     with Java. While Java applets
      appeared to get around the
      distribution scam, the real
     action sprang from the APIs,
    implemented in native code that
       only Sun and Netscape can
     distribute. Macromedia would
     create the multimedia API for
     Java, and Adobe would beef up
    its graphics capabilities. You,
   too, could enter the lottery for
     the price of a Java license,
    with the jackpot of having your
       code built right into the
    language - but most of the poor
      saps who ponied up the cash
    would turn up as ghosts in the
         Java Virtual Machine.

       Meanwhile, in Redmond...

    Microsoft was finally coming to
    its senses, seeing in the net a
    crowded, raucous stadium, with
    the teams already on the field
       well into the game, and a
      sold-out notice at the box
     office. Of course, they owned
    the place; they consulted their
   sky-box seating for perspective.

     The code boys drew up feature
    sets, the top brass started to
    look for holes in the business
     models of the key players. It
   didn't take long to discover the
    Silicon Valley keiretsu's dirty
           little secret...

     The solution - eliminate the
    distribution scam, and put all
   the net software developers on a
   level playing field. Easier done
     than said! Microsoft had long
      been promoting OLE (object
    linking and embedding) as a way
     to embed applications within
     other applications, but being
   able to stick a spreadsheet into
    a word processor somehow lacked
    the appeal of a chat window on
    the Playboy page. Best of all,
     for Microsoft, OLE ran on all
     the platforms MS cares about:
     Windows 3.1, 95, NT, and, oh
        yeah, the Mac - sorta.

     Presto change-o - OLE morphed
   into ActiveX, a part of Internet
    Explorer. As far as technology
   goes, it was a major improvement
   over the hacks Netscape peddles.
     But then, Netscape has never
     been known for its brilliant

   The real impact of ActiveX rests
          in a feature called
   AuthentiCode, which is a way for
    developers to digitally "sign"
        their ActiveX controls,
    guaranteeing that they haven't
    been tampered with. This allows
     the browser to automatically
     install the "trusted" ActiveX
    controls as needed. Most users
   saw it as a convenience feature,
   just one of the many reasons why
    they prefer Internet Explorer.
       But when Netscape 3.0 is
   introduced, it's the one feature
        Netscape doesn't copy.

    It didn't take long for plug-in
    developers and content sites to
      catch on to the benefits of
     ActiveX controls vs. Netscape
       plug-ins. Start-ups with
       unlikely prospects, like
    FutureWave, were suddenly on an
    equal footing with Macromedia,
    as website developers took the
   plunge and started using ActiveX
     controls on their web pages.

    At Netscape, the dreams of tall
    dollars from plug-ins began to
    fade. But worse news was on the
     way. Microsoft found a way of
       merging ActiveX and Java,
     allowing developers to build
     ActiveX controls in Java, and
    letting the "trusted" Java code
      gain greater access to the
     system and the ability to mix
     native code with Java. While
     developers puzzled over what
      this means, and editors saw
      their next year's worth of
       "ActiveX vs. Java" cover
        features angling toward
     meaninglessness, Netscape and
   Sun saw the writing on the wall.
    In Microsoft's world, software
      will play together without
   licensing dollars changing hands
      first. No plug-in bundling
   deals, no auctioning off a place
    in the Java API to Macromedia.

   The Internet Old Boys' Club found
     itself in big trouble, as the
       web of deals weaving KP's
     keiretsu together come apart.
        The solution, while not
     foolproof, exercised the home
       turf advantage: a war of

   "Microsoft wants to kill Netscape
     plug-ins" was discarded as a
       dud, and Netscape instead
   settled on the "ActiveX is great
    if you've got a PC" line, which
    warms the hearts of the Mac and
    Unix crowds, who aren't exactly
    drowning in a flood of plug-ins
        anyway. How about Java?
    "Microsoft wants to kill Java"?

   The "ActiveX vs. Java" meme still
   gained momentum, disingenuity be
   damned! Security is the favorite
   rhetoric of Sun. "Native code is
       inherently dangerous and
       insecure," they said (the
   corollary: only Sun and Netscape
     can be trusted to put native
    code on your machine). This got
     the academics to stop looking
    for security holes in Java, and
     concentrate their efforts on
   ActiveX. Meanwhile, the MIS boys
       started beefing up their

     In Redmond, Gates was beside
     himself. A recent convert to
   Java, the smear campaign was the
             final straw.

   So, once again, it's off to war.
    But in web infowars, casualties
     are more likely to play dead
     than stay dead. The irony of
   this theatre of combat is that a
     company like Microsoft can be
     bullied by circumstance into
    doing the right thing and still
     see their tactics blow up in
       their face. With only the
     tiniest hint of a smirk, they
   release a Netscape Java plug-in,
     10 times faster than Sun and
    Netscape's implementation. They
     hire away the Mac Java people
      from Natural Intelligence's
    Roaster group, and put them to
    work on building a better Java
             for the Mac.

     But there's no such thing as
      benevolence anymore - only
       cheaper and more cynical
     marketing ploys. Can the cool
     buzz of satisfied users douse
       the shrieks of quivering
   netheads and panicky competitors
   quick enough to calm the spectre
    of a bespectacled Big Brother,
   even one that brings good things
     to life? The web's technology
    underwriters will keep blasting
      away until the question is
   settled. And in an age where few
   people care whether the clip is
     half-full or half-empty, but
      rather who owns the gun, it
    might take a while to clear the
        floor of spent shells.

        [S U C K], 6 December 1996
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