Gates: Browser Conceived Before Netscape Was Born

Copyright 1998 The Seattle Times Co.

Days away from a widely anticipated public deposition in the government's antitrust action against his company, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has pinpointed for the first time the date Microsoft began work on a Web browser for its Windows operating system.

In an interview Friday, Gates said the decision to develop a browser was made at an executive retreat on April 5, 1994, at the historic Shumway Mansion in Kirkland.

"I said, `Hey, we're going to get it (the browser) integrated into the operating system,' " Gates said. Soon afterward, in an April 16 memo, he assigned key executives responsibility for putting together browsing technology for Windows and proposed that Microsoft develop a Web site of its own, Gates said.

The date of the retreat is significant because it predates the formation of Netscape Communications, which went on to become a chief competitor of Microsoft's in Web browser technology and the development of software that enables users to navigate the Web. One focus of the government's case is Microsoft's move to bundle its browser, called Internet Explorer, with its dominant operating system, an action alleged to give Microsoft an unfair advantage over Netscape in the marketplace.

According to papers on file with the Delaware and California secretaries of state, Netscape incorporated as Electric Media on April 7 and 11, 1994, respectively. The following month, Electric

Media changed its name to Mosaic Communications, and in November 1994 changed once again to Netscape Communications, now based in Mountain View, Calif.

Gates was scheduled to give a deposition in the Justice Department case last week. The deposition was delayed, however, after The Seattle Times and other news organizations were successful in their request to have the process opened to media and the public. Microsoft has appealed the ruling while lawyers work out details of a public deposition.

Netscape co-founders Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen say they began discussions about forming a new company on March 1, 1994, a day after Clark left Silicon Graphics (SGI), a leading Silicon Valley technology company, in a dispute over its future direction. Clark had founded SGI in 1981 to develop sophisticated computers capable of 3-D imagery.

Clark has said Netscape's founding predated the Shumway retreat. He did not respond to e-mail requests asking for clarification in light of the dates on Netscape's filings for incorporation.

Clark said in an interview in June that he had no knowledge of Microsoft's Internet plans when he set up Electric Media. His and Andreessen's early conversations focused largely on interactive TV and online markets, including online games, he said.

But Clark has said he felt Microsoft treated Netscape unfairly in the summer of 1995, as the company was attempting to adapt its Navigator browser for Windows 95.

Microsoft withheld key programming information about Windows 95 from Netscape, Clark charged. Under normal procedures, Microsoft would supply Windows 95-application developers such as Netscape with tools to enhance the appeal of the operating system to software purchasers. "I said this seems like something the Justice Department should get involved in somehow," Clark said in a May 1997 interview.

Microsoft executives vehemently deny the company withheld the technology.

"We gave them everything. We brought them into the Windows 95 launch; they were a featured partner at the Windows 95 launch," said Brad Silverberg, a senior vice president who headed Windows 95 development for Microsoft. "We considered Netscape Navigator the killer app (application) for Windows 95." ("Killer app" is a slang for a program so compelling that it can't help but popularize the technology it is based on.)

Partnership talks founder

The Justice Department, in its Sherman Antitrust Act suit against Microsoft, which is scheduled to go to trial next month, has accused Microsoft of entering the browser market in an attempt to put Netscape out of business with predatory and unfair business practices. At one point, in the spring of 1995, government attorneys say, Microsoft illegally attempted to dissuade Netscape from adapting its browser for the then-forthcoming Windows 95 - a move that, if proved, would equate to anticompetitive collusion.

Gates has strongly denied his company threatened Netscape and says notes by Thomas Reardon, an early Microsoft Internet manager, taken at a June 21, 1995, meeting between executives from both companies will bear out Microsoft's claim. Reardon has turned over the notes to Microsoft attorneys for use in the company's defense against Justice Department allegations.

On April 6, 1994, a day after the Shumway retreat and the day before Netscape incorporated, Gates made a widely publicized announcement in Chicago that the forthcoming Windows 95 upgrade would contain Internet technologies.

At the time, Microsoft had no knowledge of Netscape's existence, Gates said. Gates maintained he was not aware that Netscape existed till January 1995, when he received an e-mail from a Microsoft online executive, Dan Rosen, alerting him to the possibility of doing a partnership with Netscape.

Only after talks between the companies broke down in the summer of 1995 - 15 months after the Shumway retreat - did Netscape emerge as a clear competitor, Gates said.

"Then they started to make statements about how they're going to put Windows out of business, and they're a (software) platform and Windows is a set of poorly debugged device drivers," Gates said. The latter comment in essence cast Windows as bug-ridden and sloppy software.

Soon after the Shumway session, Phil Barrett, a Windows executive, was assigned to begin work on a browser. Barrett, who today works for RealNetworks in Seattle, made little progress, however, and the project eventually was transferred to Ben Slivka.

Under a crushing deadline, Slivka's team managed to put together a browser, Internet Explorer 1.0, in time for shipment with Windows 95 in August 1995. The browser used technology licensed from Spyglass, a company based in suburban Chicago. That technology was based on Mosaic, the original graphical browser developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

Internet programs supported since 1991

Although the Shumway retreat marked the inception of Microsoft's browser development, Gates said the company supported Internet technologies compatible with the Web as early as 1991. J. Allard, a recruit fresh from Boston University, was assigned to develop a key Internet technology for a Microsoft product.

Shortly thereafter, efforts began to develop Winsock, a technology that made it easier to develop Windows applications for the Internet. Winsock was vital to the development of Windows browsers by a variety of early vendors.

"You can go back to 1991 and say we were doing really good stuff for the Internet," Gates said. "You can't criticize us on (Internet) transport (technology)."

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