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AOL, Netscape Deal Even Closer

Shortly after America Online Inc. revealed it would buy Netscape Communications Corp., AOL chairman Steve Case flew out to the Web software pioneer's headquarters to address its workers.

The subject was hairy.

Â"You can still bring your dogs to work,Â" he told a cheering crowd of 2,000 Netscape employees.

That comment, related by several attendees, seemed no small concession from a company whose cautious corporate culture, some feared, could snuff out the freewheeling creativity of Netscape.

Netscape shareholders voted overwhelmingly Wednesday in favor of the $9.6 billion deal, and the merger is expected to close shortly after.

But the real work in combining these very different companies is just starting.

AOL's ability to soothe Netscape's coveted army of software designers is key to creating what could be a powerful new threat to Microsoft's computer software dominance.

Once the deal is completed, AOL becomes the distributor of Netscape's Internet browser software and adds the Netcenter Web site, giving it two of the four most popular Internet destinations.

Also part of the deal, Sun Microsystems Inc., a maker of business software and computers, will distribute Netscape's corporate software for three years.

So far, AOL's assurances to Netscape staff appear to be working. Common goals, such as making the Internet easy to navigate, are helping to bridge the divide of culture and distance.

Relatively few Netscape employees have quit since the Nov. 24 agreement, thanks in part to Case's promise to pay an extra month's salary as a bonus for sticking around.

Others are waiting for Netscape stock options to take effect so they can sell stock at fat profits.

Netscape's Marc Andreessen, who co-invented the first widely used browser for finding and retrieving Internet information, signed on as chief technology officer of AOL.

Â"The reason I'm here is because they have a really good story,Â" Andreessen, 27, said Monday from his car phone near AOL's Dulles, Va. headquarters.

Still, the differences that make the marriage a leap of faith were apparent in visits this year to the companies' headquarters 3,000 miles apart.

It's tough to find AOL subscribers, and there are 16 million of them, in Netscape's Mountain View, Calif. offices.

While Netscape created the tool for people to surf the Net on their own, AOL supplies neatly organized channels of information for Â"newbies,Â" or Internet beginners who otherwise might be groping.

Yet similarities could help smooth things.

Both companies arose in the Internet's dawn, and are infused with go-getter mentalities.

They repeatedly Â"morphedÂ" to survive: AOL by linking its members-only online service to the broader Internet, and Netscape by going from just browsers to building corporate software and a Web site geared toward businesses.

By David E. Kalish

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