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AOL rekindles browser battle

Uses Gecko in CompuServe 7.0

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ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

AOL Time Warner Inc took a first step in a potential rekindling of the browser wars of the late 1990s yesterday, confirming officially that CompuServe 7.0 is shipping with Netscape Gecko as its browser, replacing Internet Explorer.

Some three million people subscribe to CompuServe, AOL's brand for more experienced internet users, not enough to make a significant dent in Microsoft Corp's browser market share. But the strategic move could indicate AOL is ready to take the battle back to Microsoft, possibly by incorporating Gecko in future versions of its flagship America Online service.

Until last year, AOL was obliged to use IE as its default browser, under a long-term deal with Microsoft that predated its acquisition of Netscape. In exchange, AOL got icons on the default Windows desktop and carried on Windows installation CDs. This deal fell apart reportedly because Microsoft was unwilling to carry software from RealNetworks Inc, a rival in the streaming media space that makes software used in AOL.

Gecko is an open-source layout engine that is used for rendering HTML and other web standards at the heart of browsers. The guiding principle behind the software's development is compliance to industry standards, without the proprietary extensions of IE or previous versions of Netscape.

For web developers this is a good thing and a bad thing. Standards compliance is good, as long as there are enough people using these standards to make writing to them worthwhile. However, IE's massive percentage of market penetration, in the high 80s, means whatever IE supports is virtually a de facto standard. Developers think IE before Netscape.

For AOL and Microsoft, the possible emergence of another scrap over browser software will not only have marketplace implications, but could effect the outcome of various lawsuit's Microsoft is facing.

AOL sued Microsoft earlier this year for burying Netscape during the browser wars, an act which sparked the antitrust trial that is currently in the remedial phase. Microsoft could argue AOL's considerable market power, ownership of Netscape, and willingness to propagate the software, means the 'second browser' is still a competitive factor.

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