MOST computer industry observers agree that Microsoft Corp. has worked hard to kill Netscape's Web browser. When Microsoft started giving away its own competing product, Internet Explorer, sales of Netscape's Navigator effectively stopped.
Netscape was forced to give its browser away, too, and seek other ways to make money from its software expertise. So there we were, in 1997, with a U.S. megacorporation, and another one that was merely huge, both giving away Web browsers around the world.
Meanwhile, in Oslo, Norway, two former telephone company engineers who had developed their own Web browser, Opera, started having trouble selling it against U.S. competition that was giving away similar products.
Opera Software has at least as much right to be angry at Microsoft and Netscape as U.S. steel and auto producers have to be upset by so-called predatory pricing by foreign competitors.
Key selling points
Imagine a world in which both Microsoft and Netscape were charging $25 or $35 or, more likely, $50 for their Web browsers. Opera's browser costs $35 here. It has some advantages over Navigator and Explorer, including the fact that it will run on less tTC powerful, less expensive computers.
If Microsoft and Netscape hadn't started giving away their browsers, Opera might, by now, have at least as many shiny new high-rise buildings and highly paid employees in Norway as Netscape has in California.
At some point, I expect Opera Software and the Norwegian government to sue Netscape, Microsoft and the U.S. government for violating the same treaties and international trade principles held so dear by U.S. smokestack industries.
For the European Union, a confederation of 15 European countries, the merits of such a suit won't matter as much as its political implications.
The Norwegians would not only be able to cast themselves as victims of U.S. economic imperialism, but also would be able to muster the threat of Europe-wide economic retaliation against U.S. software producers and, by extension, other American exporters.
The recent acquisition of Netscape by America Online makes such a suit even more tempting. Now Opera can claim that it is being treated unfairly by not just one, but two, U.S. companies that hold controlling market positions in their fields.
The political black eye the U.S. government would get by supporting Microsoft and AOL/Netscape over Opera in any international forum would almost certainly force a settlement, possibly one that would put more money in the hands of Opera's owners than they've earned selling their product since 1994, when they released the first version for Internet downloading.
An international "dumping" suit against Microsoft and AOL by Opera would have more long-run importance than the current U.S. antitrust suit against Microsoft. It would be the first international suit over software products distributed via the Internet.
Even an out-of-court settlement of such a suit would set important precedents. More importantly, it would remind us that, in an Internet-linked world, the effects of a decision made by a single U.S. company -- in this case, Microsoft's decision to give away its Web browser for free -- can be felt all over the world, not just within our own borders.
Robin Miller writes daily Web site reviews at www.techsightings.com. Learn more about Opera at www.operasoftware.com.
Pub Date: 12/18/98