If anybody buys Netscape it'll be IBM

If anybody buys Netscape it'll be IBM

I'll tell you what, this industry is nothing if not entertaining. All the contorted flip-flops, dramatic sideshows and comedic turnabouts make you just want to sit back with a box of popcorn and enjoy.

And probably the most entertaining sideshow of all is the one starring Netscape. No doubt you've heard by now that Netscape's stock has been creeping up, thanks to rumours that the likes of Sun Microsystems, Oracle, IBM, and even America Online are toying with the idea of acquiring Netscape. Of course, if you took all the Netscape acquisition rumours that have circulated over the past year or so and lined them up end to end, they'd wrap around Marc Andreessen's swelled head at least twice, so this stuff is nothing new. But this time I think something might really be going down.

That's not to say that I put a lot of credence in all of the rumours. I doubt Oracle is really all that interested, because Netscape's stock hasn't plunged low enough for bargain-minded Larry Ellison. Sun Microsystems? Nah -- Scott McNealy has enough dead wood to worry about. America Online? Please. It's too busy trying to make excuses for violating its subscribers' privacy and defending itself against the latest class-action lawsuit filed not only by those pesky users who still find it next to impossible to sign on, but by content providers and advertisers who claim they were commercially injured by AOL's allegedly false advertising.

That leaves us with IBM. And here's where it starts to get interesting.

At first glance, it's easy to scoff at the idea of IBM having the slightest inclination to bother itself with Netscape, especially given the animosity that has raged in the past between Netscape and IBM's Lotus subsidiary. It hasn't even been a year yet since my meeting in Singapore with Lotus President Jeff Papows, during which Papows lit into Netscape and especially CEO Jim Barksdale. That's when he characterised Netscape as an "aggravation", and elaborated on the famed comment he'd made at the Lotusphere '97 user conference, that "a lot of what comes out of Mountain View [the location of Netscape's headquarters] is bullshit".

OK. Fast-forward to Lotusphere '98, which took place a few weeks ago in sunny Florida. During a press conference, just for the heck of it, I asked Papows about Netscape. And this time his response couldn't have been much warmer or fuzzier.

"We're working pretty hard with Jim Barksdale's team. They'll begin distribution of eSuite from their Web site -- over the course of the next couple of weeks we expect them to be a major distribution source for us -- they've got one of the more active Web sites in the world," Papows said. "So you'll see lots of dimensions to the relationship where I think in fact we'll be allies."

And there's more . . .

As it happened, I also had a chance at Lotusphere to chat with John Thompson, the IBM senior vice president and software group executive who can probably be accurately described as the number two man behind CEO Lou Gerstner. I threw out the IBM-as-Netscape's-white-knight scenario just to see what he'd say or not say, and I found the response equally intriguing.

Thompson gave me a poke and laughed. "You know if I had anything to say I wouldn't comment on that kind of a question anyway, right? I know exactly what you're getting at," he said. He proceeded to go through the standard "in some areas we compete, in others we cooperate" spiel, and capped it off with another emphatic"I'm not going to comment on the other question for obvious reasons".

Well, to me those reasons are only obvious if there's something to not comment about in the first place. If there's nothing going on to not comment about, I can't think of any reason not to say so.

So for what it's worth, which admittedly is somewhere in the vicinity of zero, I for one have a gut feeling that IBM is indeed considering an acquisition of Netscape. And as far as I'm concerned, it would be a brilliant move. Whether the Lotus executives admit it publicly or not, they know they need a healthy Netscape in order to help counter Microsoft, and that's just not going to happen as long as Netscape lacks a strong channel and support infrastructure. Clearly IBM's status as a Netscape reseller helps, but there's more to the equation than that.

Netscape cannot effectively capitalise on its reseller ties with IBM, or on the quality of its technology for that matter, without an effective management team. Let's face it -- co-founder Marc Andreessen is a dufus, CEO Jim Barksdale is in way over his head, and chairman and co-founder Jim Clark has so much money he doesn't need to care anymore.

Then you look at IBM's management. Although I personally find Lou Gerstner annoying because of his aloofness with the press, it's difficult to refute his phenomenal success in the CEO slot. Papows, likewise, has demonstrated that he's one of the best in the business, having guided the transformation of Notes in just a few years from an ill-defined product that nobody understood to a product that 20 million users worldwide can't seem to live without.

In any event, the vibes I got from Papows and Thompson at Lotusphere could well have been entirely erroneous, and for all I know IBM would no sooner acquire Netscape than it would Novell. And if my prognostication track record is anything to go by, Netscape will be a wholly-owned subsidiary of America Online before this column even makes it to print. Hey, it was just a hunch.

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