Remaking the Electronic Economy Merger of Internet Firms Could Simplify Consumer Access, Creating Mall of Future. Series: America Online Chairman. AOL Gets More Reach on Net. BY RON EDMONDS/AP 3) JAMES BARKSDALE: Netscape President Will See His Firm Survive. BY RUTH FREMSON/AP

Article excerpt

America Online is poised to pull together a NATO of the Internet - an alliance of firms whose merger could alter the balance of power in the 21st century's electronic economy.

If it goes through, the complicated AOL-Netscape Communications- Sun Micro-systems deal could simplify consumer access to the vast quantity of information and products now available online, and make it more likely that giant "portal" Internet sites will be the malls of the future.

But a merger of this scale in the still-new world of bits and bytes remains something of a gamble. For one thing, it might alter the government's antitrust case against Microsoft - or even attract the attention of trust-busting authorities itself. It will take time and a lot of effort to make everyone's technology work together. For these and other reasons the real ramifications of the deal could take a while to become apparent. "Joe Schmoe doesn't really care about all the {Internet} bells and whistles. What he wants to do is get online, get the scores, see if we bombed Saddam, and write to his uncle in Cleveland," says Joe Burns, a professor of communication at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa. "I don't know if Joe will see a tremendous difference." As with a military alliance, the three firms involved in the deal bring different strengths and weaknesses to the joint effort. AOL - which would buy Netscape outright, then license a big piece of it to Sun Microsystems - is the biggest online service for consumers. Once seen as a slow-moving firm that would be swept away in the Internet revolution, it has moved quickly to add World Wide Web access to its proprietary content sites. No less a competitor than Microsoft has lately been known to fume about AOL's ability to keep its hold on millions of electronic consumers, many of them relatively novice. For Netscape, the big plus of the deal is that it gets to survive - albeit as part of a larger entity. Netscape's Internet browsing software was revolutionary when it first appeared. But in recent years Microsoft, through its Internet Explorer software, has turned this market into debilitating trench warfare and taken enough market share that Netscape has been forced to start giving its source-code secrets away for free, in hopes that clever independent developers will produce add-ons that make it more valuable. Sun would get Netscape's business-oriented software. This would allow it to fight Microsoft's increasing incursion into the world of custom business Web sites and electronic commerce. …