The ever-quotable Jim Barksdale, CEO of Netscape Communications, told a group at the ITExpo this week that competition is healthy and that consumers would benefit from the Web browser wars. The bulk of Barksdale's keynote address was devoted to a discussion of market share and the browser wars.

As for Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Barksdale said, it has only achieved about 30% market share, despite the considerable cash and resources Microsoft has thrown at it.

"Most people would call that a failure. Bill said the browser should be free. Well, I think the operating system should be free," he said, to cheers from the crowd.

When asked why Navigator (Netscape's browser) isn't free, Barksdale implied that there were strings attached to Microsoft's "free" browser. According to Barksdale, Microsoft's free technology always ties customers into other expensive Microsoft software.

"Most people over the age of six know that free isn’t free. It’s like candy attached to a gossamer string that keeps getting tugged until you realize you are in a dark cave, and then you feel scared," he said.

Barksdale drew a little criticism from the crowd, however, when it was suggested that his business model was based on scaring people away from Microsoft and not creating competitive products himself.

"We admire Microsoft; it is a great company," he said, backing down.

Barksdale said that his job was to point out the dangers of relying on a single vendor for all of their computer software. Taking a stance familiar to anyone involved in the OS/2 vs. Windows or Apple vs. Microsoft debates, Barksdale pointed out that competition is the key to better software.

"Netscape is the best thing to happen to Microsoft shareholders," he said. "The worst thing for Microsoft shareholders would be to not have a Netscape.