June 15, 2009

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While I'm Thinking About It

A thought experiment.

Back in the mid-to-late Nineties, when GeoCities was an independent company, AOL offers were just beginning to transfer from floppies to CD-Roms, and the internet was zipping along at speeds approaching 33.3 kbps, Microsoft decided to kill web browser upstart Netscape by not just releasing their Internet Explorer free of charge, but also making it an integral part of the Windows operating system. Then they got sued by the US government (and others) as an illegal monopoly.Remember those days?

I got thinking about it over the weekend, following the news that Microsoft, in an attempt to placate European regulators, will be removing IE from Windows 7 in that market. A pretty amazing turnaround, until you get to the part where "computer manufacturers and users will be free to install Internet Explorer on Windows 7, or not, as they prefer." Insert paranoid conspiracy theory here.

Anyway, my thought process led to the conclusion that making Internet Explorer part of the Windows Operating System was probably the dumbest move Microsoft could have made. They should have included some form of feature-limited web browser (although, back then what browser wasn't feature-limited by today's standards), and included Internet Explorer as part of Office.

Write/WordPad, after all, has been part of Windows since at least 3.1, and it's presence hasn't slowed Office sales one bit. Neither has Outlook Express.

I'm thinking a "feature-limited" browser might leave out such features as a custom start page, bookmarks, and possibly the back button.

Netscape still gets ends up purchased by another company. In this situation, however, it becomes part of Corel's WordPerfect Suite (which, in addition to the title word processor, featured Quattro Pro) or Lotus SmartSuite (which had Ami Pro and 1-2-3). While this might seem to be a better fate than acquisition by the Vast AOL/Time-Warner Empire, nobody really takes WordPerfect seriously these days, and SmartSuite was killed by IBM in favor of a rebranded OpenOffice.

Whichever company doesn't wind up with Netscape takes Opera as a consolation prize.

Obviously, in this situation, the Mozilla Foundation is never formed, the Netscape code is never open-sourced, and Firefox does not exist. But, fear not! For the presence of IE in Office, and Netscape wherever it ends up, cause Sun Microsystems to include a browser in StarOffice. Which, of course, gets released as OpenOffice as in the real world. Beyond that, Epiphany or Galeon get included as the third application in the Gnome Office, and Konqueror is mostly part of KOffice.

Of course, without the full-featured IE right there on the desktop from first boot, it's going to take longer for the web to take off as the cultural phenomenon it is. Which means cable companies are only just now starting to get interested in providing service. Google is just a search engine. Spam only makes up 10% of all sent email. And newspapers aren't slashing sheet size, page count, and staff while trying to convince advertisers and customers that they're still relevant.

And, why not? In this imaginary twenty-first century we actually have flying cars. Just don't ask what insurance rates are like.



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