A Worried Wide Web

Buggy browsers are adding to security fears

The pace of Internet product development is nothing if not turbocharged. The pressure to keep up can lead software makers to bring new programs to market before they're really ready for prime time. The latest case: Netscape Communications Corp.

In early June, CaboComm, a Danish software company, discovered a potentially serious bug in Netscape's Communicator program as well as in versions of its Navigator Web browser. The flaw would let a Web site operator view files of any PC connecting to its site with the Netscape software. Netscape quickly issued a fix on June 18. But its problem was only the latest in a string of flaws that have plagued Web browsers. And the flaws may be more than an embarrassment to software makers: Some experts believe they could be slowing the growth of commerce on the Net.

WEAK SALES. In a recent survey conducted by Nielsen Media Research for CommerceNet, an industry consortium, only 15% of respondents actually made online purchases. The No.1 reason they held on to their money: lack of trust in online security. And in an April, 1996, BUSINESS WEEK/Harris Poll, just 1% of those surveyed actually shopped online.

Software makers argue that it is next to impossible to eliminate every glitch in a program or to predict how certain combinations of software might cause a program to misbehave. Still, there are signs that they're taking steps to kill more bugs before products hit the market. Netscape pays $1,000 "Bug Bounties" to hackers who find flaws, and Microsoft Corp. has held shipment of a new version of its Internet Explorer to work out kinks. Only now are test versions available. Even on the Web, it seems, haste makes waste.