Forget "browser wars" and "the battle for the desktop." The new catch phrase in the software industry is "network computing architectures"--a way of placing the Internet at the center of a wide range of commercial uses.
The idea is to put together comprehensive software tools for businesses to reach out to suppliers, distributors, customers and employees via the Internet.
The latest shot on this new battleground came from IBM, which last week unveiled with great fanfare its Network Computing Framework, a packaging of new and old products for business users that includes Lotus Notes, other programs offered under the Lotus Domino name, and a range of new development tools allowing users to create Web sites and infuse them with the security and speed that make customers comfortable using them.
IBM, which said it expected $1.2 trillion in commercial transactions to cross the Web by 2001, joins Oracle, Netscape and Sun Microsystems, which previously announced similar business application suites.
All those products underscore a shift in the business world's approach to the Web. Once regarded as largely an advertising vehicle to reach customers, the Internet is increasingly seen as a tool for companies to communicate internally via so-called intranets and externally with business partners via "extranets."
That means that computer applications that once could run on discrete internal computers, whether inventory and database programs or sales and marketing tools, must now be designed to function on the Web.
"There's money in the [corporate computing applications], unlike the consumer area where it's still unclear," says Ruthann Quindlen, a partner in the Menlo Park, Calif., venture capital firm Institutional Venture Partners, who sees numerous start-up companies forming to offer Internet-enabled database, communications and marketing programs.
Bringing up the rear in this market is Microsoft, which is not expected to announce its full line of networking products until at least the end of this year.
That's important, analysts say, because the network computing market may give the software industry its best chance yet to halt Microsoft's so-far inexorable march to world dominance.
For one thing, many networking packages are built around Sun Microsystems' Java, a programming language that allows users to transmit working programs to computers at the other end of the Internet line.
That fancy animated advertisement or line of stock quotes moving across the bottom of your browser page? That's Java in action. One of its critical virtues is that it's designed to work on your computer regardless of who provided the basic operating system--whether Microsoft, Apple, Sun or someone else.
Analysts are watching to see whether IBM, Netscape, Sun and Oracle--the leaders in network applications--build up enough of a clientele to keep their ferocious competitor at bay.
"The most profound thing is that these Four Horsemen of the Network era haven't yet balkanized," says Tom Austin, vice president for electronic workplace technologies at Gartner Group, based in Stamford, Conn. "If they don't kill each other, this may finally create a viable counterforce to Microsoft."