Speculation about Netscape's future has run rampant for 18 months. As the dust of the acquisition starts to settle, it is clear that the new Netscape, managed under the America Online umbrella and defined by a strategic partnership with Sun Microsystems, will produce some new strategies and find itself some new competitors.
Still, the question remains: can Netscape continue to grow its markets as an open, cross-platform products vendor while it continues to cuddle up even closer with Sun?
It's not the first time a major player has faced the challenge of convincing the market that it can play two hands in the same card game. Novell and IBM are examples of vendors that have tried to expand their market share on other platforms while securing the competitive advantages of their own.
But the challenges for Netscape are different from those facing Novell and IBM. Netscape isn't trying to expand into other markets while preserving its own platform. Netscape needs to preserve its cross-platform edge while adding to the competitiveness of someone else's (ie, Sun's) platform, which just happens to be the platform that best supports Netscape product sales.
This challenge is as if the US Government was to publicly back its most strategic ally while openly selling arms to that ally's enemies. It's a clear conflict of interest.
Since its inception, Netscape has been a beacon of hope for bringing open standards and rich client/server products that exploit those standards to a number of client/server OS platforms. This strength has allowed Netscape to compete by selling into a variety of enterprise settings without forcing customers to make a platform decision.
Despite Netscape's openness, Sun Solaris has been the most popular platform with Netscape customers. And as a result of the recent Netscape-Sun partnership, Netscape will expand its Directory Server product to be the underlying directory service for Solaris.
This last effort brings forth two noteworthy developments: Netscape is going to evolve more into the NOS-integrated directory services business (as opposed to being simply an application-based directory); and the potential is much greater for tight integration among Netscape products running on Solaris than on any other OS platform.
So if you were in charge of Netscape, what would you do? I think that the vendor needs to leverage the work it is doing with Sun and sign on more OS platform vendors (particularly Unix-based vendors) to license and distribute its NOS-enhanced directory server as the vendor-sanctioned and -supported directory.
This move would put Netscape in position to become the standard implementation for an NOS-integrated, Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP)-based directory service across various versions of Unix, making Netscape a natural choice for replacing Network Information Services (NIS) and NIS+ in Unix-based environments. The move would also strengthen the pitch for selling Netscape's server products across each of these platforms.
Netscape also needs to convince its non-Solaris customers that it is still committed to supporting those other platforms. In particular, what will Netscape do about that pesky Windows NT market? Microsoft seems to have temporarily forestalled the deployment of Netscape-based Web servers on Windows NT through a successful program of bundling increasingly more powerful releases of Internet Information Server with its OS.
Netscape still has a number of other server products, such as its Messaging Server, Calendar Server, and Collabra Server, which compete well on NT. As such, NT is probably the second most important platform for Netscape customers. Currently, Netscape's Directory Server provides fair directory synchronisation with NT. But Microsoft's move to Active Directory should allow for even better integration between Directory Server and Windows NT.
Netscape has some interesting challenges ahead. But the vendor is also in a unique position to capitalise on making the LDAP initiative work as an integrated, cross-platform directory solution. The more directory wins the vendor can gain, the greater the potential for moving its other products.
But can Netscape serve two masters?