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Fredric Paul: The Big Picture Fredric Paul: The Big Picture

The dream is over

America Online's recent deal to buy Netscape marks the Internet's end of innocence.

No matter how the acquisition turns out, putting Netscape under the tutelage of AOL ends Web builders' utopian dream of a free, noncommercial Internet that plugs high-minded intellectuals into some pristine electronic community.

With this deal, the new Internet offers little more than a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't choice between Microsoft's hegemony and an increasingly monolithic AOL.

Netscape under the thumb of AOL is the end of the utopian dream of a free, noncommercial Internet.
  Sure, the Net has been headed in this direction for a while now, and it's still way too early to tell whether Netscape will survive as a distinct entity. But the conventional wisdom holds that Netscape has been working hard to squander the huge stockpile of goodwill it accumulated as "the company that invented the Web."

The digerati paints AOL as a godless bastardization, fit only for clueless newbies who think the online world is nothing more than television with lots more channels and much lower production values. The Web as giant interactive infomercial.

On the other hand, despite its financial troubles, desperate forays into e-commerce (check out its server offerings), and portal posturing (ditto Netcenter), Netscape has managed to retain some of its aura as the little company with the big idea. An idea big enough to set the whole idea of computing on its ear and challenge Microsoft's dominance for the first time in a decade.  
Netscape has been working hard lately to refute the reputation it had as "the company that invented the Web."

But make no mistake, running from Microsoft into the arms of AOL is no victory for Netscape, no matter what happens to Navigator's browser share (currently pegged at below that of Internet Explorer). AOL says it won't even stop using IE as its default browser, for heaven's sake.

The digerati paints AOL as a godless bastardization, fit only for clueless newbies.
  It's more than just the classic East Coast-West Coast conflict. It's a total values meltdown. Creative, Net-positive Netscapers are already looking for escape hatches. Layoffs are often the result of these kinds of acquisitions, and has already heard from worried folks in Mountain View. One Netscape staffer even has a Web site devoted to her anger and disappointment.

For Web builders, the outlook could be just as bleak. AOL has long been known for pushing its proprietary standards, while Netscape's decision to go "open source" with its Mozilla project for Navigator 5.0 is widely credited with helping to legitimize the movement. AOL claims to fully support and Netscape's open source initiatives, but Web builders are right to be concerned. Open source is all about empowering smart, concerned developers to participate in and take responsibility for the software they use. AOL is all about hiding the plumbing from the masses. I find it hard to put the two in the same sentence, much less the same company.

But if you're a bottom-line-oriented Web builder primarily concerned with making your corporate site profitable, this deal shouldn't bother you too much. In fact, it might even make your life easier by bringing an added measure of stability to the Web. Some even think the mixture of AOL's audience, Sun's Java software, and Netscape's e-commerce applications will boost online sales. And of course the alliance of AOL and Netscape may finally offer formidable competition for Microsoft.  
These kinds of acquisitions often result in layoffs, and folks in Mountain View are already worried.

But if you're more the visionary type, dreaming of changing the world with a unique new communication medium, you've got to feel a little sad. The Web appears to be on its way not to changing the world but to becoming a mainstream, homogenized part of everyday life. The same kind of big-money forces that controlled computing before the Net are increasingly in charge of the Web as well.

It was inevitable, I guess, but I'm not sure it's what Marc Andreessen had in mind back in 1993 when he was working on the original Mosaic browser at the University of Illinois. He's certainly richer now, but is he happy?

Read more from Fredric Paul

Fredric Paul is editor for CNET

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