When it comes to the browser wars, these past months may prove historic. When historians address the recent settlement between Microsoft and the US Department of Justice, they will recount how Microsoft successfully circumvented the intent of Judge Jackson's order. The intent was for Microsoft to offer OEMs the most current version of Windows 95, with and without Internet Explorer.
However, the language of the Microsoft settlement ultimately gives OEMs a choice between two versions of Windows 95: the latest version -- OEM Service Release 2.5 (OSR 2.5) -- which includes Internet Explorer; or an older version -- OSR2 -- without Internet Explorer.
At first glance, the difference appears purely academic. The settlement reads: "Microsoft states that OSR 2.0 plus [updates and fixes] is the same as OSR 2.5 with the sole exception of Internet Explorer 4.0 functionality." There are two problems with that explanation. First, customers buy version numbers, not functional equivalents. Second, OEMs are sensitive to customer psychology. The moment OSR 2.5 is released, no sane OEM will choose OSR 2.0 plus updates.
On the slim chance that OEMs defy reason, the settlement contains a canyon-sized loophole to address the anomaly: "Microsoft will promptly make available to each OEM opting to pre-install OSR 2.0, any additional such software supplements that are released in the future and are compatible with OSR 2.0." (Emphasis mine.)In other words, this gives Microsoft the right to ship supplements to OSR 2.5 that are "coincidentally" incompatible with OSR 2.0. This narrows the OEMs' choice to OSR 2.5 with Explorer or a product nobody wants. It's Microsoft 1, Jackson 0.
Forget the settlement. Netscape took a step that could affect the browser wars in a far more profound way. Netscape caught everyone by surprise when it announced it would make its Communicator source code freely available. Anyone can modify the code as long as the enhancements are made available to Netscape.
You probably won't see this move effect a big change in the browser wars in the short-term. Unless a customer demands otherwise, an OEM will always take the path of least resistance. That path currently leads to Windows 95 with Explorer.
Netscape is the first highly visible provider of corporate software to give away source code. Freeware advocates point out that free source code means unlimited, free research and development. Netscape is unlike other freeware because it is starting out with the lion's share of the corporate market. If Netscape handles the free licensing and distribution of the source code properly, it could be the catalyst of a revolution that creates new inroads for all freeware.
Former consultant and programmer Nicholas Petreley is editor in chief at NC World (www.ncworldmag.com). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org