Publishers Join the Web Browser Wars, for Better or Worse

By: Steve Outing

Like many of you, I suspect, I find the ongoing "browser war" between Netscape and Microsoft unsettling. With each company introducing proprietary features not available to users of the competing Web browser software, publishers are being forced into awkward positions in order to cope. With each company's actions of late, the Web is being forcefully moved away from open standards that allow Web publishers to produce a single product that can be viewed equally by all Web users, regardless of the software they're using.

This is not entirely new, of course. There's long been an inequity between Netscape and the other browsers, so that many sites have optimized navigation scheme for Netscape Navigator users, and an alternative "lite" set of pages for users of other browsers. (Those using America Online's poor-performing Web browser often see "AOL users click here.")

Now that Microsoft's Explorer browser is rising as a significant challenger to Netscape's dominance, Webmasters must consider creating Explorer-friendly pages that take advantage of Explorer's new exclusive features. Microsoft seems to have an effective strategy, with Explorer rising 10 points to 18.2% of the browser market by mid August (compared to Netscape's 71.5% of the market), according to Web Week. Soon, Explorer will be the default Web browser for America Online and CompuServe, which should give it a major boost.

Microsoft wants publishers to "optimize" their Web sites for Explorer, and is working with them to that end. The Wall Street Journal was one of the first to sign onto a program that allows Explorer users to receive access to the Journal's Interactive Edition free through the end of 1996. Journal visitors can pick up Explorer software via a link on the site. Non-Explorer users must pay $49 a year ($29 if they're print Journal subscribers) to access the Interactive Edition.

Inbox Direct

Netscape was not to be outdone, and last week it introduced the latest version of its browser with a nifty feature called Inbox Direct, and it too is making sweetheart deals with some publishers.

Inbox Direct is a service that allows publishers to create e-mail subscription services for Web sites. Web pages are mailed to subscribers as intact HTML files with all graphics and links included. E-mailed Web pages are read using -- and ONLY using -- Netscape's mail sub-application. This is a significant step forward for e-mail publishing, which till now has been primarily text-based.

Among the 20 content partners in the Inbox Direct program, which were hastily arranged a couple weeks ago after Microsoft announced its latest major Explorer upgrade, are the New York Times and Knight-Ridder Newspapers. According to Netscape insiders, the company is giving these early development partners the server software, called MailCaster, free in order to seed the market for these e-mail services. MailCaster is an application that runs on a publisher's Netscape server, which allows users to sign up for specific content which can be mailed to them as Web pages. (One person familiar with MailCaster described it as an application, developed using the Java programming language, similar to ListServ or other mailing list managers, but capable of sending out HTML files.)

At the New York Times, the Web site staff is busy developing possible uses for Inbox Direct. According to New York Times Electronic Media Co. president Martin Nisenholtz, the first application will probably be a scaled down version of "Clipper," a soon to be released personal clipping service. The full version of Clipper will still be a paid service ($49.95 per year), which will allow a user to receive e-mailed articles from the Times based on keyword as well as category searches. The free Inbox Direct Clipper will allow a Netscape Navigator user (but NOT an Explorer user) to receive specified sections of the Times Web site. For example, an Inbox user might choose to have the CyberTimes section e-mailed each day.

The free Clipper service will run through the end of 1996; no decision has been made about extending the offer into 1997, Nisenholtz says.

Nisenholtz says he's excited about the possibilities for the e-mail service, and intends to sell ads for the e-mail messages. The agreement with Netscape is non-exclusive, he emphasizes, and the Times will continue to explore other ways to "push" content out over the Internet rather than require consumers to "pull" information from the Web site.

The problem with Inbox Direct

While I applaud the Netscape move into e-mail delivery of HTML files, I am disturbed by the proprietary nature of Inbox Direct as it stands today. It's clearly and obviously designed to boost usage of Netscape Navigator and hold onto those users. If a Netscape user is receiving the New York Times front page in her Netscape mailbox each day, she's unlikely to switch browsers and lose that service. The logic from Netscape's perspective is sound.

Those of us who use other e-mail applications, such as Eudora, and don't want to switch to using Netscape are for now out of luck when it comes to receiving active Web pages as e-mail. This will likely change in time as Eudora and other applications evolve to include this capability. For now, Inbox Direct is a strategy by Netscape to encourage use of its browser software as an Internet user's e-mail application of choice as well. A Netscape spokesman told me that the mail sub-application in Navigator already has features comparable to the stand-alone e-mail programs, and the company expects the mail features to completely match programs like Eudora in functionality.

This brings up an issue that's being hotly debated right now in light of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Knight-Ridder deals with Microsoft and Netscape. These respected news-gathering organizations appear to have made a marketing decision to promote one party or the other in the Web browser war between Microsoft and Netscape. Does this have implications for the impartiality of these newspaper companies' editorial coverage of those two companies?

Chris Jennewein, an executive at Knight-Ridder's New Media Lab in San Jose, California, says he views KRI's deal with Netscape as strictly a distribution agreement, based on a realization that for now Netscape holds the majority of Web users. Inbox Direct fits in well with the company's Newshound personal clipping service, he says. Jennewein thinks that Microsoft's Explorer publishing partner deals are more an integral part of Microsoft's marketing strategy.

As for the Wall Street Journal and its relationship with Microsoft, it's worth noting that the newspaper uses Netscape server software and publishing system. Netscape spokesman Chris Tucher says the Journal's deal with Microsoft should "take nothing away" from the work the paper is doing with his company. Journal Interactive Edition editor Neil Budde says, "Our position is these decisions are marketing decisions" completely separate from editorial coverage.

I'm not too worried about these deals affecting editorial coverage. These media companies are too visible and watched too closely to allow a distribution or marketing deal to have any influence on editorial coverage. The people making these deals for media companies are not those supervising technology coverage by the editorial staffs.

Nevertheless, some people are concerned about this. For a discussion of the issues involved, you might want to read a recent article in C|Net about the possibly incestuous relationship between media companies and Netscape and Microsoft.

My concern is rather over the promotion of one browser over another and the creation of, in effect, proprietary content on the Web. The beauty of the Internet is the removal of proprietary barriers to information access. What we're seeing with the Microsoft and Netscape deals with publishers is the creation of content designed on the old proprietary model.

@Home content partners announced

@Home, the U.S. cable modem venture owned by cable giant Tele-Communications Inc., Comcast Corp., Cox Communications and venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has announced its first wave of content providers. Sixty companies have signed up for @Home's Media Development Program, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Knight-Ridder and USA Today representing the newspaper industry. These companies are given access to tools and technologies that will enable them to offer a variety of services that take advantage of @Home's superfast Internet service (10 megabits per second, @Home claims). @Home says it will begin to market its service in selected markets later this year through its three cable partners.

According to a Knight-Ridder spokesman, Mercury Center (San Jose Mercury News) will be one of the newspaper chain's first ventures to participate in an @Home trial.

The @Home partners announced last week included a wide range of content, from pop culture to sports to world news, according to the company. They include C|Net, HotWired,, Mercury Mail, Motley Fool, SportLine USA and ZD Net.

Movin' On

John Jordan has left the Salt Lake Tribune, where he was editor of Utah Online, and joined the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel as senior news producer. Jordan, who describes himself as "a veteran of new media since 2400 baud modems," was hired to help launch the Digital Sun-Sentinel on the Web and America Online later this fall as part of Digital City South Florida.

Tony Semerad, a longtime Salt Lake Tribune political reporter, replaces Jordan as editor of Utah OnLine.

Don Albert has left Digital Ink (the Washington Post Co.'s new media unit) to become director of advertising sales for Digital City Inc. Albert was vice president for sales at Digital Ink.

(We seem to have a clear trend here, of the online city guide companies raiding talent from newspaper new media divisions.)

Farewell, Europe Online

In case you missed the news, bankrupt Europe Online was taken offline for good last week. Its talks with German suitor Deutsche Telekom broke down, and no other companies came through to invest. Earlier, Burda Holding GmbH had pulled out of the venture. Originally envisioned in the old proprietary commercial online service model, Europe Online couldn't make the transition to succeeding in an Internet-dominated environment.


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