War of the Internet Suites

Remember the “browser wars” of the mid-1990s?

Well, they’re back, but in a new form. Welcome to the “War of the Internet Suites.”

America Online’s primary market advantage is a proprietary suite of software that gives people Instant Messaging, Buddy Lists, chat, and (yes) censorware in one complete, easy-to-use package.

Yeah, but that’s software, right? Isn’t Microsoft the King of Software? Yes, it is, which is why Microsoft’s new strategy is to build its own suite. The suite will match all of AOL’s features and will be given away with Windows.

If it sounds like Microsoft has learned nothing from its antitrust travails beyond the fact that the way a big outfit wins friends in government is to buy them, you’re probably right.

But the irony here is that if you’re running a small content, e-store, or Internet-service-provider (ISP) business, you may be rooting for Microsoft right now. AOL isn’t the Internet, it’s a walled garden, and its victory would make it landlord and ruler over the Net, while Microsoft remains a software company.

I’m reminded again here of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 propaganda film “Foreign Correspondent,” when the victim (named Van Meer) cries under torture that “after the beasts devour one another, the world will belong to the little people.” The question is, What software suite will the little people run?

While some might run a simple browser like Opera (IBM as the friend of the little people is the funniest analogy of the 21st century so far), there are still a lot of other Internet services people want that Opera doesn’t offer.

People like Instant Messaging. They like integrated chat. They like having integrated address books with nicknames. Most of all, they like personalization if they don’t have to work for it. Having all this built in is AOL’s key asset. The “switching costs” of replicating that data is why millions keep their AOL accounts.

It will take a powerful force to get people to change (yes, maybe more powerful than Bill Gates giving something away). The most powerful forces remain faith, fandom, and philosophy. That’s where the “third force” in the “war of the Internet suites,” Portalvision Inc. of Brewster, NY, is aiming its marketing.

CEO Paul Graf said the new version of his Portalvision Desktop suite includes all the features of the “Big Two” — including personal productivity tools like a calendar — and he’s looking to “affinity groups” to do his marketing for him.

Affinity groups could be churches, they could be sports teams, they could be musical groups, or they could be political parties. He wants to do national deals directly and local ones through small ISPs. He says these affinity groups can make money for themselves while serving their members.

“The reason AOL is powerful and strong is their powerful environment,” he told me. “They were the only ones providing that until we showed up.” You may not switch from AOL on the say-so of Bill Gates, or even a close friend, but you might switch for your preacher, your school, or your party.

We’ll see. The battle is on, and the good news is the “little people” do have a dog in the fight.

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