April 16, 2002 9:00 AM PDT

Netscape, not IE, put on new CompuServe

America Online on Tuesday fired the first shot in what may signal the rekindling of a Web browser war against Microsoft.

As expected, the Internet giant launched CompuServe 7.0 with Netscape bundled as its default browser. CompuServe, AOL's other online service, previously used Microsoft's Internet Explorer as its default browser. AOL itself continues to use IE.

"We're backing the product because we think it's a good one and we want to put it in users' hands, and CompuServe is a good place to get it out there," AOL spokesman Josh Danson said.

However, the decision for CompuServe to embrace Netscape, also an AOL subsidiary, could further divide the Internet company's tenuous partnership with Microsoft. For years, the pair existed in an amicable quid-pro-quo arrangement where AOL would use IE as its default browser in exchange for Microsoft bundling AOL into its Windows operating system. Last summer, that arrangement dissolved, sending the tech rivals back to their respective corners.

As Microsoft continues to weave Internet applications more tightly into its ubiquitous operating system, AOL has also taken steps to favor its own products. Nearly a year ago, the Internet company began testing versions of CompuServe that used Gecko, the underlying browser technology developed by open-source group Mozilla.org and Netscape. AOL has not stated its intentions for Gecko, but the technology is being tested in experimental versions of the flagship AOL service.

AOL said in a statement Tuesday that the CompuServe upgrade was sparked by consumer feedback. Some analysts, however, wonder if political reasons are behind the move.

"The question is, are they (using Netscape) mostly for negotiating purposes or are they really going to roll it out?" asked David Smith, an analyst for research firm Gartner.

Indeed, the decision seems contradictory to AOL's actions. AOL Time Warner, AOL's parent company, filed suit against Microsoft earlier this year on behalf of Netscape, alleging the software giant used unfair business practices that resulted in the browser's demise. Should AOL decide to bundle Netscape into its flagship service, making the browser the default for its 34 million members, Microsoft could argue that AOL poses a competitive threat.

For now, CompuServe's use of Netscape will act as a trial balloon. CompuServe, with its 3 million subscribers, remains a dwarf compared with the AOL service.

"It doesn't surprise me that AOL wants a test bed to see how users react and to iron out any rough spots so if they decide to go to a grander scale they can avoid the initial pitfalls on CompuServe," said Ken Smiley, an analyst at technology advisory firm Giga Information Group.

 

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