Surfers on Netscape's home page are now greeted with the message, "Congratulations: You just won the browser war. Netscape is now free." In the wake of disappointing losses in 1997, Netscape last week announced that not only would it begin giving away its browser for free, but that the source code for future versions of Communicator also would be released. The first move comes as no surprise, since Netscape has blamed competition from Microsoft for most of its losses. In the past two years, the most persuasive selling point for Microsoft's Internet Explorer has been its unbeatable price: free. In that time, Microsoft has marched steadily toward a dominant market share and is currently only a few percent shy of that mark. Under the new "unlimited distribution" plan, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), Internet service providers and software publishers will be permitted to distribute Communicator and Navigator free of charge. In the past, such a license could cost even a small service provider thousands of dollars. The plan is intended to drive Navigator's market share back to the top of the heap while helping to increase sales of Netscape's server software. The company hopes to recover at least some of the anticipated losses through advertising revenue due to increased traffic to the NetCenter Web site. Though there has been talk of a source-code release for several weeks, the move comes as a surprise to some analysts. But even this decision can be accredited indirectly to Microsoft. When the code becomes available alongside Communicator 5.0, Netscape will have mirrored a similar strategy by Microsoft, in which the browser itself becomes a sort of foundation upon which other applications are built. Netscape hopes the new strategy will result in an "evolving" Communicator, built by and for real Web users. Any modifications made to the Communicator code will be documented and posted on a developer site. The most innovative of these modifications will find their way into subsequent releases, though modified code may itself be distributed as a custom browser. Such products will not carry the Netscape logo. "Now that we have taken the aggressive step of making our client software free, our goal is to add millions of new users to our current client installed base of 68 million," said Mike Homer, Netscape's executive vice president of worldwide sales and marketing. "The Unlimited Distribution program is aimed at doing just that -- making it easy for thousands of partners to freely distribute and millions of individuals to freely choose Netscape Navigator and Communicator. We have also just made it easier for our OEM partners to include Netscape Navigator and Communicator on both servers and desktop computers, so their customers no longer have to settle for anything less than the market-leading browser." As part of Netscape's decision to make the Navigator source code available to developers, the company will allow ISPs and OEMs to create customized versions of Netscape Navigator or Netscape Communicator for redistribution to customers. Netscape will provide the customization tools, which will enable these companies to add their own logo, home page, bookmarks and other features to Navigator. According to the company, the source code will become available for free licensing with the first Netscape Communicator 5.0 developer release, expected by the end of the first quarter of 1998. But can the move work? Some analysts say no, pointing out that corporations might be hesitant to adopt a browser that may not be "pure." Releasing Netscape's source code to the masses could make even the name-brand product less than secure, and specialists in charge of corporate security are likely to shy away from a Netscape browser customized by a third party. On the other hand, by tapping into the creative power of thousands of programmers could help Netscape evolve in exactly the direction people want, and all the best enhancements eventually will find themselves incorporated into future versions of Netscape Communicator.