By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers
Netscape Communications has changed its policy and is now giving away its Web browser to everyone, no strings attached.
Netscape Navigator and Netscape Communicator are now free for the asking. You can download either one from the Netscape home page at http://www.netscape.com or from any of thousands of file-download sites on the Web. Unless you really like spending money unnecessarily, don't buy a Netscape browser at a store, even though it's still on the shelves. You can get it free on the Web.
Netscape announced the change late last month a few hours after Microsoft agreed to stop forcing PC makers to include its own browser, Internet Explorer, on new PCs. Internet Explorer has always been free, while Netscape's browser has always been sort-of free.
The "sort-of" part needs some explanation. Netscape's founders had never intended to sell their Web browser. It was given away freely for many months. But when the company started lining up financial backers in the mid-1990s, its money lenders insisted that Netscape start charging for the browser.
Netscape went about this in an odd way.
First, the company stood by its original policy and continued to give the browser away to entire categories of users—students, researchers, teachers and the like. Second, Netscape encouraged everyone else to download Navigator (and, later, Communicator) from its Web site and use it on the honor system. (In other words, you'd pay for it if you want to. The program didn't have any "time bombs" the way many other programs have that disable it after a trial period.)
And Netscape did this while packaging Navigator and Communicator for sale in stores and for paid distribution through corporate buying systems. This meant some consumers and corporations paid for a product that millions of others got for free.
Last month's change of heart does not mean the company has stopped trying to sell its browser. It's still available in stores, and Netscape still offers a so-called "professional" version on the Web that it asks users to pay for. (But since the browser is now free for everyone, including corporations that want to install the software by the thousands, Netscape isn't likely to get many users to pay.)
Netscape had no choice. It had to revert to its old policy. It was losing ground to Microsoft too quickly. When Microsoft introduced its new version of Windows in the fall of 1995, Netscape was supplying about 90 percent of all Web browsers for PCs. But as soon as Microsoft started giving away Internet Explorer—and, just as importantly, as Internet Explorer improved from an ungainly version 1.0 to a very attractive version 3.02—Netscape's share of the browser market fell steadily.
Netscape is still ahead, but its share is now estimated at 60 percent overall. In the battle of the super browsers, which pits Netscape Communicator against Internet Explorer 4.0, Netscape apparently is behind.
With both Netscape and Microsoft browsers now officially free, PC users would seem to have no incentive to pay for a browser. But that's just what Opera Software is trying to do, with considerable success. It is selling its sleek Opera Web browser for $35. The Opera browser runs faster than the other two, takes up far less memory and has a host of unusual features. You can try it for free by downloading the browser from http://www.operasoftware.com.