Navigation lore


One of the traditions of the Internet business is utter and ruthless dishonesty when it comes to selling things. Another is of scrupulous honesty among engineers: the best software is built by people whose self-esteem demands that they point out every minute flaw in their products. The two tendencies are normally reconciled by putting the liars in the marketing department and burying the engineers who know what they are doing in the dungeons of the business.

What breaks this arrangement is that not all the smartest people are dishonest. If you actually want to produce clever software that even stupid people can use, you will find yourself, sooner or later, hiring honest engineers. The really important computer companies have all been founded by engineers, though they are all now run by marketing droids. (Bill Gates is an exception since he can both write software and market it. But it's been years since he wrote any of his company's products himself.) And if you hire engineers, they will tell the truth, if only to each other.

On the Internet nothing stays private for ever. The truth will out, bobbing on top of the ocean of lies like an angry, expostulating duck. And so it came to pass that Jamie Zawinski published his homepage. It has one of the most elegant and exclusive addresses on the Internet, since it doesn't start with http://www or anything like that. You get to it by typing "about:jwz" in the address box of Netscape Navigator.

Zawinski was the 20th person hired by Netscape, five years ago. He was an essential part of it in the years when the company's employees believed they were changing the world; and I think they were right. He wrote the news and e-mail portions of the program and most recently helped to write and co-ordinate the next version of Navigator, which, if it now ever comes out, is supposed to be much smaller, faster, and better than the present one as it has been produced entirely by volunteer, co-operative effort.

On April Fool's Day, Zawinski resigned, but typing about:jwz still brings you to his blistering resignation letter. For the past two years, he writes, Netscape has been "shipping garbage, and shipping it late". He describes being choked by the bureaucracy surrounding him, and feeling he was part of a company that was simply driven by the need to make the maximum possible short-term profit rather than the software that would make the world as much fun as possible.

It's not really an exaggeration to say that Netscape did change the world. Its web browser was not the first, and not always the best. The company was always arrogant and often clumsy. But it did more than anyone else to make it obvious to everyone what the web might do or be. Anyone who played with Navigator, for even a moment, realised that their screen was no longer a mirror, but the surface of an enormous sea, in which every sort of monster and marvel could be found, and other mariners, too.

There is a deep irony, though, to Netscape's success. What makes the web different from all other mass-market computing phenomena is that it was designed by engineers and marketed by its users, though Netscape was the software that made it possible for users to do this marketing. Yet once the company had made the web navigable to anyone who could reach its shores, it provoked a stampede from all the marketing-driven companies which had earlier hoped that this unprofitable piece of engineering would remain the preserve of nerds. Without Navigator, Bill Gates would never have been driven to give away Internet Explorer, and AOL would not have made the millions that enabled it eventually to buy Netscape.

It may have been unavoidable. In his resignation letter, Zawinski quotes Jim Barksdale, the businessman who ran Netscape: "He says something along the lines of, 'All successful businesses go through mergers', and then goes on to list some examples: the railroads, the auto makers, the telephone company (singular), the television networks. In other words, the robber barons: the great dehumanising, creativity-stifling monopolies of the 20th century.

"If you ask me, about the only more depressing comparison he could have come up with would have been to relate Netscape to the Native American nations ('All great cultures undergo mergers and acquisitions . . .')"

The point of Zawinski's inflammatory despair is simple. If AOL stands for anything, it is for the attempt to channel and canalise the ocean that Netscape opened up. More even than Microsoft, it represents the triumph of marketing and the final victory of TV. But it hasn't won yet. It's still possible to get all this stuff direct from the horse's mouth, so to say. Type "about:jwz" and see what you find.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world