Sometimes Bill Gates seems like a very funny guy. For example, right now he is risking civil contempt fines of $1 million a day in his effort to make Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer the No. 1 piece of software for cruising the Internet. That's a lot of money, especially when you weigh it against how much money Microsoft hopes to make from selling copies of Internet Explorer - nada.
It's a sign of what's really at stake in the so-called browser wars and why Attorney General Janet Reno was willing to stick her neck out earlier this week by accusing the world's largest software company of violating a 1995 antitrust agreement. The browser wars have nothing to do with browsers themselves. The wars are about other things that interact with Web browsers, and there's so much money at stake in those other things that everybody - from Bill Gates to Janet Reno to Sun Microsystems - seems to be willing to go to the mat over them.
Microsoft's No. 1 competitor in the browser wars is Netscape Communications Corp., which is estimated to have about 70 percent of the market for these software programs used for cruising the Internet's World Wide Web. Although Netscape, unlike Microsoft, charges for its browser, Netscape is not trying to make a pile of money selling browsers. But Netscape is certainly trying to make money selling its Web server software.
SERVERS 'SERVE' PLUS
A WHOLE LOT MORE
Servers are the computers that sit at the center of today's networked computer world. The servers hold the information - whether it be the location of your package through Federal Express Corp.'s Web site or this very column you're reading on The Journal of Commerce's Web site. When a client computer, through its Web browser, requests that information, the servers ''serve'' it to your computer.
But servers can do a lot more than just dish out data. They also can receive data and process it, as, for example, when you use your Web browser to submit an order to an online catalog and the server tells you if the product is in stock. Or a server can carefully record how people are using a company's Web site and report that information back to the site's operators.
As you can imagine, companies are willing to pay good money for servers that will make it easier for them to use the Web. So there's a lot of money to be made selling servers. And what better advertisement could there be for your server products than to have most customers using your browser?
FULFILLING THE DREAM
THAT WAS INTENDED
The browser wars are about even more than servers, however. They're about computers. Microsoft itself doesn't make a dime selling computers. But every time an IBM-compatible PC is sold, Microsoft gets a piece of the action because you need a Microsoft operating system - like Windows 95 - to run your computer.
But what would happen if the great dream of the Web really comes true? With almost every Web browser out there today running on an IBM-compatible computer, it may be hard to remember what that dream was. But it was a dream that started in academia among scientists who wanted to easily share information no matter what computer system they used.
Web documents are designed to be computer-platform independent, and it's still true today that you can surf the Web with just about any kind of computer. If it doesn't matter what kind of computer you're using, then you're not wedded to buying an IBM-compatible machine. And that would mean you would not be forced to buy a Microsoft operating system.
WEB IS NOT JUST
A SURFIN' SAFARI
But this Bill Gates' nightmare could only come true if the only thing you wanted to do with your computer was to surf the Web. Most of us use our computers for a lot more than that. We have word processor, spreadsheet and personal information management software that we depend on. The application functionality that these programs offer is just not available on today's Web.
That's where Java, the computer language from Sun Microsystems, comes in. Java aspires to be a computer language that will be just as platform independent as Web sites are today. A word processor written in Java should run just the same on a Macintosh machine as on an IBM-compatible computer. You can just download the software through the Web and off you go no matter what kind of machine you have.
Java has yet to truly fulfill this great promise and - if Microsoft has its way - it may never do so. Or at least that's what Sun alleges in a civil lawsuit it's filed against Microsoft, accusing Microsoft of so drastically modifying the version of Java installed in Internet Explorer that Java programs written for Explorer will not run properly on other machines and vice versa. Microsoft denies the charges.
No one can say for sure now whether Sun will win its lawsuit or whether Janet Reno will be successful in pressuring Microsoft to change its browser policies. But there's no doubt that, while browsers themselves may be free, there is a great deal of money at stake in this war to shape the future of computing in a computer-obsessed world.