Inc Technology's profile of W3C

Sally Khudairi (
Mon, 25 Nov 1996 17:06:37 -0800

[this is Rohit posting -- my comments will be out under my own byline
soon enough]

Title: Should Netscape Control the Web
Author: Bianchi, Alessandra
Issue: Inc. Technology, No. 4 for 1996
Page: 60
Ref. No.: 18960601
Summary: This article details the problems that users may face
as companies stuggle to control the Web browser industry.

No matter who wins the battle of the browsers, the rest of us are likely
to lose=20

It is one of those perfect New England days. Late spring. Sunny but
crisp. There is a buzz on the MIT campus. What seems to be the entire
student body swarms west, making its way toward the hivelike dome known
as Kresge Auditorium. Remarkably, the traffic in the campus
thruway known as the Infinite Corridor is going in just one direction,
and the usual hallway exchanges about theoretical physics and
aerodynamics have given way to gleefully juvenile cries. "He's coming!
He's coming!" "Did you see him?" "He's really here!"=20

A good 15 minutes before show time, empowered-looking students, today
acting as bouncers, hold up their arms and turn new arrivals
away. The 1,156-seat auditorium is filled to capacity. Press credentials
have to be shown several times to gain entry to a small
cordoned-off area where more than 100 journalists are scribbling on pads
or testing tape recorders.=20

Beaming, Michael Dertouzos, director of MIT's Laboratory for Computer
Science, refers in his introductory remarks to the main attraction
simply as Bill, and no one is confused. "Gates" has become as
superfluous to the chairman of Microsoft as "Sumner" has to Sting.
Dertouzos also reminds the packed and highly charged auditorium that the
last time a speaker for the Distinguished Lecture Series
packed a hall was when Jim Clark, the chairman and cofounder of Netscape
Communications Corp., came to campus.=20

Dertouzos isn't in Kresge a few hours later when a sparse and almost
anemically polite audience gathers to hear another lecturer, Tim
Berners-Lee. Like Gates and Clark, Berners-Lee is here to talk about the
phenomenal growth and seemingly limitless future of the World
Wide Web. The diminished audience is ironic. While Gates and Clark head
companies that make products for the Web, Berners-Lee
invented the Web and now leads an organization that comes closer than
any other to officially controlling it.=20

But the small audience is also a reflection of influence. For proof,
visit almost any home page on the Web and notice how often you come
across a gleaming capital N, the name Netscape, or the phrase "Best when
viewed with Netscape Navigator." Check out a few more sites,
and you'll probably hit on a reference to the rapidly up and coming
Microsoft Internet Explorer. But unless you know exactly where to
you're not likely to run across a mention of Berners-Lee's World Wide
Web Consortium--or any of its technical achievements--even though
the consortium, if successful, would make Web-page browser icons like
the shiny N irrelevant.=20

W3C, as the consortium is often called, exists to design and promote the
adoption of standards for the way information is displayed,
modified, and interacted with on the Web--and those who are members join
with that implicit understanding. But in reality, the consortium
does little of substance. Instead, Netscape almost single-handedly sets
the Web's evolving standards--though now Microsoft is making a
fast-break bid to wrest that control from Netscape. The result? The Web
has thrived, but the consumers and businesses that are coming to
depend on it face an increasing number of potential roadblocks caused by
growing incompatibilities between the various software
programs used to create and access Web pages. And the thousands of
companies that make up the Web software industry risk being
hampered by the dominance of a single company acting--as do most
companies--purely out of self-interest.=20

How difficult is it to deal with Netscape's de facto standard setting?
Anyone who's surfed the Web with a non-Netscape browser--or even
with an older version of Netscape's Navigator--is familiar with empty or
distorted graphics frames, nonfunctioning interactive features, and
a host of other defects that manifest themselves from site to site. Now,
Netscape Navigator users are starting to encounter similar
problems on the relatively small but rapidly growing number of sites
that are optimized for Microsoft's Explorer.=20

Keeping up with the latest Netscape variations mystifies even seasoned
Web masters like Andrew King, principal of Athenia Associates,
in Ann Arbor, Mich., who runs a Web site (
devoted to following Web technology, including tracking the
ever-changing features of various browsers--one of at least a dozen such
sites that have sprung up in the recent past. "We do this all day,
and we still have trouble keeping up," confesses King. Ditto for Matt
Stevens, a network manager for Wired magazine's on-line spin-off,
HotWired. Stevens says his job is to "keep track of the latest and
greatest" Web features, but with Netscape it isn't always easy. "You
to dig and dig and dig," he says, "because Netscape isn't really good
about informing people about the new features in its latest version.
And it's always changing." He routinely checks Netscape's Web site to
compare release notes of various versions.=20

The confusion can be particularly harmful and costly to companies trying
to put up an attractive Web site that's accessible to all browsers. In
July David Siegel, president of Studio Verso, in San Francisco (whose
Web site,, serves as a barometer of
state-of-the-art Web design), began circulating within the Web industry
an open E-mail missive about the dangers of Netscape's strategy
of constantly tossing out new self-proclaimed standards. "Already I
spend thousands of dollars every month (real money) making sure our
sites look good on Netscape Navigator for the various platforms,"
Siegel's E-mail said. "I could write a book on the differences among
versions and platforms for this one product. I [want] my clients [to] be
assured that their money goes into design, not into working around
cross-platform, cross-version compatibility issues. I'm happy to build
extras for one browser or another, but when the basic fabric of a site
is torn by differences in the way browsers approach basic elements of
typography and layout, I feel the consortium is not serving end users.
. . . We all know this isn't a game, but I fear that in trying to shake
off Microsoft, Netscape will end up hurting people like me and my
in a flurry of exciting new features and overlapping releases."=20

The W3C is located at MIT, in seven rooms on the third floor of the
Laboratory for Computer Science, with a paid staff of approximately a
dozen MIT researchers and an annual budget of $3.5 million. (There are
also satellite branches at the National Institute for Research in
Computer Science, in Rocquencourt, France, and at Keio University, in
Tokyo.) The consortium was founded in October 1994, at which
point Dertouzos wooed as director Berners-Lee, the shy, self-effacing
Englishman who wrote the URL (uniform resource locator), HTTP
(hypertext transfer protocol), and HTML (hypertext markup language)
protocols that have become the lingua franca of the Web. At the time
Berners-Lee was a researcher at the European Laboratory for Particle
Physics (CERN), in Geneva. He had grown tired of being
bombarded by business executives begging him for specs they could use to
shape the Web. He decided to protect the Web's future by
moving his efforts to a vendor-neutral environment. The newly formed
consortium had little trouble attracting members; the list now reads
like a high-tech Who's Who: Netscape, Microsoft, America Online, IBM,
Digital Equipment Corp., Sony, AT&T. Most of the 140 corporate
members pay annual dues of up to $50,000 for the privilege of belonging
to the consortium; smaller companies and nonprofits pay as little
as $5,000.=20

Berners-Lee talks a bold game when it comes to keeping the Web free of
single-vendor influence: "Corporate information-technology
strategists should think very carefully about committing themselves to
using features that will bind them to any one company," he says. "The
Web has exploded because it is open. It has developed so rapidly because
the creative forces of thousands of companies are building on
the same platform. Binding oneself to one company means limiting one's
future to the innovations that that company can provide."
Consortium public-relations backgrounder sheets are filled with
similarly determined statements: "W3C was founded to develop common
standards for the evolution of the World Wide Web," reads one, "[and to]
provide a reference-code implementation to embody and
promote standards."=20

But the W3C is like a new college graduate with a wealthy and
influential family, for whom expectations are high and contacts
plentiful, but
whose career doesn't seem to get off the ground. The consortium has
failed to take control of setting standards for the Web. W3C
personnel tend to downplay the failure, claiming that setting standards
isn't the consortium's whole mission. "We're an industry consortium
that works with its member companies on areas they've approved, one of
which happens to be developing standards," says MIT/W3C
research scientist Jim Miller. But if the W3C isn't primarily an
industry standards=ADsetting organization, it's not because it has other
things to
do; it's because it's unable to set those standards.=20

Dertouzos indirectly acknowledges the consortium's lack of results by
insisting that the process of trying to set standards is valuable in
itself. The W3C offers its members "the opportunity to scream around a
table with their competitors," he says. "You know, a great deal gets
done that way." However, when you have an explosively growing business
to run, in an industry that measures time in Web years--2.6
months per year, according to Berners-Lee--who has time to sit around a
table, let alone with rivals?=20

Certainly not Netscape. You'd never know it, though, from Marc
Andreessen, Netscape's cofounder and senior vice-president of
technology. "In the networking world, standards are a lot more important
than they were in the PC world," he says. "The only way to meet all
the requirements for sharing information and for communicating across a
huge diversity of systems is through open standards."=20

And in fact, Netscape has been devoting an increasing amount of
resources to the issue of standards. Since its inception, the company
has joined at least five computer-related standards bodies and is
considering joining four more. Of Netscape's approximately 1,500
employees, director of technology Martin Haeberli estimates that at
least 5% are involved with standards bodies--attending meetings,
workshops, and conferences, or participating in E-mail discussion
groups. Along with the time commitment to those bodies (typical
standards discussion groups can generate some 50 E-mail messages a day),
Netscape makes a financial commitment. The company
won't disclose figures, but in addition to the cost of dues, travel, and
development workshops, Netscape recently hired Carl Cargill as its
standards strategist, to work full-time on standards issues.=20

But in the end, Netscape never offers to adhere to standards recommended
by the W3C. When pressed, Andreessen concedes as much.
"We've been sort of lucky in that most of what we've innovated either is
or is becoming a standard," he says. But is it luck? "Well, now that
you ask," he chuckles, "what helps us most is that we were first, and we
continue to be first--because that's what we try to do."=20

Since the company jumped into the scene in April 1994, bringing to the
Web an exceptionally easy-to-use, full-featured browser,
Netscape's business model has been based on leapfrogging the status quo
and coming out with new features ahead of anybody else.
Standard Web-page features like the ability to center, align, frame, and
move text around in chunks were developed and popularized by
Netscape. Those innovations spawned an entire new industry of browser
developers, Web masters, and value-added Web service
providers, and brought the Web into the homes and offices of an
ever-increasing portion of the world's population. Of course, groups
than Netscape have contributed and continue to contribute new Web
features and extensions that are becoming either standards or for the
time being de facto standards, most notably Sun Microsystem's Java
programming language and Microsoft's object-oriented development
tools known as ActiveX. (In October, Microsoft agreed to turn control of
ActiveX over to the Open Group in Cambridge, Mass., a
software-industry group that has helped shape standards for the UNIX
operating system.)=20

But few would disagree that the majority of the HTML features and
extensions that the W3C ends up blessing--and more important, that
most people end up using--come from Netscape. As market-research and
consulting firm META Group Inc.'s program director Stan
Lepeak points out, "It's Netscape's mark that defines what is and is not
a standard."=20

Netscape managers suggest that the problem isn't that the company is
determined to maintain control of the Web but rather that the
consortium approach to setting standards is somehow lacking. "You can
have more fun whacking yourself with a ball-peen hammer than
going to standards meetings," says Netscape's Cargill. Haeberli goes
further: "Being a consortium, the W3C is composed of its
members," he says. "And so what that means is that the consortium,
without its members, isn't. I don't want to dismiss it, but it really
have an existence."=20

On the other hand, who can blame Netscape? After all, setting standards
for the Web has been the company's main competitive edge. If
Web users go with another company's browser, they risk using something
that simply doesn't work with many sites because it doesn't
comply with Netscape's standards, which are set on the fly from
Navigator release to Navigator release. The same holds true of the
software that runs Web sites on servers. As Vint Cerf, senior
vice-president of data architecture at MCI (best known as the Father of
Internet) observes, "There's an understandable tension between agreeing
on standards that everyone supports and product differentiation
that distinguishes one product from another. Netscape has been pretty
focused on product differentiation in its short history, and from the
business perspective, that's understandable."=20

The policy of ignoring the W3C and setting its own standards certainly
hasn't hurt Netscape, whose Mountain View, Calif., parking lot is
filled with BMWs, Porsches, and Mercedes so new that many don't have
license plates. Netscape fetched a $2.2-billion market value on
the opening day of its initial public offering while it was still losing
money and showed little promised of making any in the near future. Why
should it change its business model?=20

One might assume that Netscape's behavior is a source of considerable
frustration to the W3C. In fact, consortium personnel are quite
tight-lipped about it. Berners-Lee seems to insist that being a
standards hog is incompatible with success. "Companies know that it is
interesting to compete over one feature until everyone can do it," he
says. "After that, the feature becomes part of the base, and everyone
wants to do it in one standard way. The smart companies are competing on
the implementations--aspects like functionality, speed, ease of
use, and support--that differentiate products." But if Netscape's and
Microsoft's Web software isn't competing on nonstandard features,
that's news to them and to everyone else in the industry. Only MIT's Jim
Miller (who works in the W3C's "technology and society" area) risks
breaching decorum, if mildly, by being forthright: "There are, we have
to be honest, companies that while supporting a standard, have a
proprietary way of doing it."=20

Industry players outside Netscape and the W3C are, predictably, more
blunt about things. "There's nothing wrong with a company's
advancing proprietary standards so that they become de facto standards,"
says Prakash Ambegaonkar, CEO of Frontier Technologies
Corp., an Internet- and intranet-applications software company in
Mequon, Wis. "The problem is if it isn't sincere about being open.
Duplicity. There is a feeling that Netscape has that." Netscape's
ability to come out with new features before they are standardized gives
Netscape "a special advantage," he adds. David Gifford, vice-chairman of
electronic-commerce software purveyor Open Market, in
Cambridge, Mass., agrees. "As much as they say they want to standardize,
they really don't," he says.=20

Netscape doesn't always bother to hide its disdain for industry
standards=ADsetting bodies. "Netscape's attendance at open standards
meetings has been spotty," notes Eric Sink, who works for Netscape
competitor Spyglass Inc., in Naperville, Ill., and chairs a working
group within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an informal
grassroots Internet standards body. "While it's gotten better lately,
a long time Netscape gave the impression that it just didn't care." The
crowning insult, says Sink, was when Netscape blew off an IETF
meeting two years ago in San Jose--some five miles from Netscape
headquarters. Even when Netscape attends meetings, he adds, its
representatives don't seem interested in advancing the agenda. "It's as
though someone from on high said, 'Let's not make a big deal
about it, but let's not let anything go by without our knowing about it
either,' " he claims.=20

Web-page designer Siegel becomes livid on the subject of Netscape's
track record in standards efforts. Siegel is a member of the W3C
and an invited member of its HTML review board E-mail discussion group.
He alleges that the group is often "the last to know" about new
Netscape features. "It does everything by press release," he gripes,
"and conveys the message that 'we're not going to play by the rules.' "
He claims that when he recently ran a page on fonts for the W3C,
Netscape didn't contribute and that the company has ignored
standards-setting work on style sheets. Netscape was conspicuously
absent from a Web conference in Versailles last spring, he notes.
"Netscape said it was too busy, which is its reason for everything,"
grumbles Siegel. "If Netscape is not acting as part of the consortium at
this low level, perhaps it's time the W3C asked it to either be in or
out of the formal standards process."=20

Indeed, why doesn't the industry band together to censure Netscape in
some way? The answer is probably obvious and is vividly answered
in an E-mail from Fred Baker, senior software engineer at Cisco Systems
Inc. and current chairman of the IETF. "Meddle not in the affairs
of dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup," he wrote.=20

But it's not just fear of being crushed by the Netscape steamroller that
keeps companies and individuals from protesting more vociferously.
The fact is many, perhaps even most, people are quite happy with
Netscape's de facto standards setting to date because the company
arguably has set good standards. "Consider the alternative," says META
Group's Lepeak. "Were it not for Netscape, we'd all be stuck with
last year's browser."=20

Most people right now are simply concerned with getting functionality as
fast as possible to the Web, he contends. He dismisses those
who are upset by Netscape's actions as either Internet "purists" or
Microsoft "loyalists." Many Web enthusiasts are rabid Netscape
devotees, like Pepperdine University's Internet researcher Ogden Forbes,
who wrote his doctoral dissertation, at the University of San
Francisco, on the history of the Internet. "Netscape has given a major
gift to legions of people worldwide," he gushes. "Thank you,

And it's true, at least in the short term, that having a single company
take control of an emerging technology can provide much-needed
direction and leadership. But the longer-term ramifications of
unilateral standards setting is more grim, to judge by history--and one
hardly look outside the computer industry for evidence. Has anyone
noticed companies rushing to restore IBM's several-decades-long
dominance of the corporate computing world, maintained largely by its
having set technical standards for computer hardware? Does a
large percentage of today's PC users appreciate the decade it took
operating-systems standards-setter Microsoft to offer DOS users a
workable graphical user interface (Windows 3.1) and the additional half
decade to bring out a successor (Windows 95) that equaled the
functionality and usability of the Macintosh operating system of the

The essential question is this: Once a company firmly controls
standards, what's to keep it working hard to make sure that new features
benefit customers rather than head off competitors? The question becomes
all the more critical as browsers evolve from operating system
add-ons to the actual core of the operating system--a direction that
both Netscape and Microsoft have made no secret of taking.=20

But the Web industry and those of us who make use of its products don't
seem to be in a position to do much right now besides cast a vote
for either Netscape or Microsoft. Perhaps the best we can reasonably
hope for is that the two will end up sharing control, each forcing the
other to keep its offerings in its customers' best interests. What
doesn't seem likely is that either will give up the battle and throw its
behind jointly developed standards. As Clyde Seigle, vice-president of
technology development for tax and legal information provider CCH
Inc., in Riverwoods, Ill., notes, "The Internet has come a long way from
the days when everyone was supposed to cooperate."=20

Alessandra Bianchi is a contributing writer for Inc. magazine.