The Linux operating system could wind up being the biggest threat to Microsoft's Windows NT platform but before that happens, Linux will cannibalise the Unix market, Marc Andreessen, co-founder and executive vice-president of products at Netscape Communications, said while in Toronto recently.
"Linux is going to consolidate the Unix market around itself," Andreessen told reporters following Netscape's announcement of an Internet billing software designed to help enterprise service providers streamline their customer payment processes.
To make his case, Andreessen points to the fact that Linux is the fastest-growing non-Microsoft platform in the industry today. He added that the over the next five years other Unix vendors will eventually realise that given their volume shipments they will not have enough money in their cost structures to continue to pay for the develop of their own proprietary versions of Unix.
According to Andreessen, much like how the Unix vendors will eventually converge on the Intel-chip architecture, they will also ultimately all converge on Linux.
"Linux will be the last version of Unix standing," he said.
Netscape, which currently makes Linux versions of its browser, joined Intel and two venture capital firms in September to take a minority stake in Linux vendor Red Hat Software in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
"So, five or ten years out, Linux and NT is a very interesting story but for the next five years the more interesting story is Linux versus the other forms of Unix," he said.
Andreessen is confident in his assessments and points to the fact that Microsoft is finally paying attention to Linux. In the so-called "Halloween document", Microsoft clearly has Linux in its sites, Andreessen said.
Responding to customer demands, Andreessen said that his company's plans for Linux will bear fruit by year's end, as the company releases directory and messaging servers that run on the "open-source" operating system. "We're seeing a lot of demand for Linux from ISPs, we're seeing a lot of demand for Linux from Europe from industrial sectors; we're seeing a lot of demand, actually, from the US Department of Defense."
He added that users can expect the release of Netscape's remaining servers -- such as the company's application server -- for Linux in early next year.
In other news, Andreessen said his company is moving forward with plans to help companies of all sizes conduct business on the Web. Netscape's BillerXpert, which was announced Friday and is expected to be available early next year, is a result of these efforts.
BillerXpert 1.0 provides a range of self-service features for customers, including one-click payment, detailed statement analysis and customised views of billing information. The software is also designed to help enterprises boost sales and revenues through its ability to analyse customers' usage patterns and behaviour, and works with legacy databases, mainframes and payment warehouses, Netscape said.
BillerXpert 1.0 is built on Netscape Application Server software and Netscape Directory Server software.
"In the server space, around products like our application, directory and messaging servers, we're focusing on a model where we think applications and directories and messaging needs to run on a much higher-level scale -- there's many more users per application," Andreessen said.
And it is here that directories become crucial, according to Andreessen.
While today, we think of directories as network management tools, he suggests that directory technology is really an application development tool. He said every application is going to need a directory because it's going to need to provide a level of access control across a very large user base or subscriber base.
"Historically, directories have been written for network management or operating system management. What our customers are finding is that there is a whole different class of problems that directory technology can apply itself to," he said.
This is why Ford picked Netscape's directory, according to Andreessen. With thousands of applications that they need to extend out to a very broad supplier and distributor network, Ford could have a single application-specific directory for every one, but then they would have thousands of different directories instead of their one directory, he explained.
"Directories that are built into operating systems like NT and NetWare were not intended to run in those environments. We approach directories from an Internet-bound viewpoint, while others are approaching the technology from the OS-side, and right now there is a huge gap."
In essence, Netscape sees directories as databases -- not relational databases or necessarily transaction engine, but directories as open standards-based, highly scaleable repositories of information that are very good at doing lots of reads.
For example, Netscape's new BillerXpert application allows an organisation to build a repository of customer profiles. In essence, creating a database so companies can conduct searches quickly and be able to keep records in order to target marketing and cross-sell or up-sell additional products and services.
Meanwhile, XML offers huge promise as a meta format for exchanging information which will be incredibly important for e-commerce, he said.
"XML is an enabler that gives you a consistent way to tag data," he said.
"EDI was the way to do e-commerce, but it defined a very small set of transactions that you could do electronically. XML allows you to define a much broader set of transactions and that to us is where it is very, very useful," he said.
While, Netscape will offer XML support in the upcoming release of Navigator 5.0, Andreessen said XML support on the client-side isn't as important as it is on the server-side.