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Web Design: Entering the fourth era

LAST WEEK saw the end of an era for Web design, when America Online (AOL) purchased Netscape Communications Corporation. Despite its short history, seven years at best, Web design has passed through three era's, distinguished partially by the browsers being used at the time but also by the parties producing those technologies.

The first era of Web design began with the first graphics-capable Web browser to gain wide acceptance, Mosaic. Few remember this prehistoric period of Web design, before there were tables or frames or even font tags. These were simple days when the thought of doing actual "business" on the web seemed like a bastardization of the concept.

When Marc Andreesen left Mosaic to create a commercial Web browser, Netscape, a second era of Web design began. This was the Golden Age when HTML 2.0 was the standard and Netscape 1, and a little later Netscape 2, made up over 80 per cent of the browser market. Phrases such as "cross-browser issues" and "backward compatibility" were yet to be cursed on newsgroups and discussion lists. Web Designers were a desperately sought commodity even by the big companies that were struggling to understand what this new media would mean to their business.

Then came the browser wars, the third era of Web design, the era that came to an end last week. This era started when Microsoft introduced a browser that could seriously contend with Netscape's browser, Internet Explorer 3 and began a massive marketing campaign to get their browser placed onto every computer in the land. During this period many small time Web operations that had become overnight successes during the golden age folded, while others merged, and e-business became the constant buzzword. Web design was no longer about "code once, use anywhere" but we were forced to test, test, test.

With the purchase of Netscape by AOL, the worlds largest Internet Service Provider, we are now entering a fourth era. This is not to say that the browser wars are over, but the dynamics have forever changed as the chief players are shuffled around. AOL is more than just an ISP; although the 14 million or so customers they serve is nothing to sneeze at. AOL is a company that is positioning itself to be a major player in online communication. This deal has wide ranging ramifications and will one day either be celebrated as a watershed event for the Internet or rued as the day it all came tumbling down.

For its part, Microsoft, currently involved in an anti-trust case in the US, is not crowing over the fact that they have forced another company off the field. Rather the spin-masters in Redmond proclaim this acquisition as proof positive that competition still remains strong and vital in the Internet industry.

This is simply not the case. If the allegations against Microsoft are to true-and given the facts of this case and Microsoft's history there can be little doubt that they are - then the acquisition of Netscape by AOL is the final proof that Microsoft's actions not only hurt but undermine the very foundations of open competition. Netscape was unable to compete on the slanted playing field created by Microsoft and as a result have had to sell themselves to a third party with deeper pockets in the hopes of preserving their products. Will this tactic work? It hasn't in the past.

Remember WordPerfect? In the 1980's through the early 1990's, in a highly competitive field, WordPerfect was the leading word-processor. Then Microsoft released Word and, like a young gunslinger trying to take down the fastest gun in the West, directly targeted WordPerfect's customers by "leveraging" Word with its Windows operating system. Eventually WordPerfect lost just enough customers that it had to sell itself off. The product first passed through the hands of Novell and then to Corel, leaking market share rapidly along the way.

Word is now the market standard while WordPerfect has been stagnant for over 5 years. The result is that there is no longer any significant competition in the word processor market. Could this same fate befall the browser market?

Microsoft reminds me of the kid who owned the football and threatened to take it away unless everybody agreed to play by his rules.

The other players in the game, not only Microsoft's colleagues and competitors but the public as well, have allowed Microsoft to get away with its immature behaviour for far too long now.

Several people have asked me this week "Are you glad AOL bought Netscape?" To which I reply "No." And then add "...but it's better than Netscape disappearing altogether."

It's not that I hate AOL. My guilty secret is that after graduating university it was my first non-collegiate ISP. However, AOL is a different kind of company than Netscape and I question its ability to keep up the same pioneering spirit that, in its brief life span, has been Netscape's hallmark.

Will Netscape become homogenized with AOL? Will we see Navigator become as clumsy and simplistic as the AOL interface? Will AOL push for standards or will it incorporate its own proprietary code?

No other media is as inexorably linked to its medium as the Web is to the Web browser. There are few changes in paper technology that would be radical enough to necessitate an overhaul in the way in which print designers do their work, much less require them to rethink and relearn their design skills.

However, for Web design, every new browser or plug-in means new skills to learn, new ways of presenting our content, and new constraints to make sure that our sites work ubiquitously: whomever controls the browser, controls the Web.

There is hope. Last April Netscape released the code to create the Navigator browser into the public domain (http://www.independent.co.uk/net/980407ne/story5.html). This means that despite the fact that AOL owns the company, it does not own the code used to make the browser, and Navigator browsers can be produced independent of what AOL decides to do with the code.

Still, for a piece of software, any software, to become popular, it has to be installed first. Most home computer buyers will simply accept whatever browser comes pre-installed.

We can not predict exactly how this change will play out in the future, but there is little question in my mind that it will have a significant impact on the Web and, consequentially, on the way we do Web design.

E-mail comments or queries to Jason at indy_webdesign@mindspring.com