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Netscape navigates new frontier

Netscape confirms that it is expanding its browser business to include surfing the Internet on televisions, Network Computers, video game players, and other non-PC devices.

Netscape Communications confirmed today that it is expanding its Web browser business to include surfing the Internet on televisions, Network Computers, video game players, and other non-PC devices.

As reported by CNET last week, the company will become a key investor in a start-up company called Navio. The venture will include partnerships with several companies, including Sony, Nintendo, IBM, and NEC, Oracle, and Sega.

"The Internet is going to be the electricity to consumer devices for the next century," said Wei Yen, CEO of Navio and former Silicon Graphics executive. Navio chairman and Netscape head Jim Clarke added: "You can think of Navio of going where the PC cannot or is not likely to go for interface reasons, price reasons or form-factor reasons."

The first products based on Navio browsers are expected to be available next year. Netscape will try to leverage its brand name in the new company's products.

The new strategy is important to Netscape in two ways. First, the market has huge potential, as almost all American households have at least one TV set while only about one-third have PCs. Netscape is betting that a good portion of this truly mass market will start surfing the Net on their television sets by connecting devices like the Sony Playstation game box to TVs, and it wants them to be using Navigator as their browser, just as the majority of PC users do now.

Second, by establishing itself for devices outside the PC market, Netscape hopes to get the jump on browser archrival Microsoft. Netscape of late has been struggling to outmaneuver Microsoft in the PC market because the Redmond, Washington, giant dominates in PC operating systems. Netscape faces better odds of getting out early and dominating the market for non-PC devices where Microsoft has less of a built-in advantage.

There are plenty of technology hurdles to clear before Navigator can be pushed as a browser for TVs as well as PCs. To start, it would have to make text and visuals on TVs as easy to read as on PCs. The company is expected to provide some clues of how it will revamp its browser technology for the new market as part of its announcement.

In the non-PC browser market, Netscape will find itself competing with manufacturers of proprietary TV-surfing devices such as Viewcall, WebTV, and, eventually, Microsoft.

Observers of Netscape's strategy believe that the company is making its move none too soon. "We think it's about time that Netscape begins paying attention to this market," said Joe Gillach, chief operations officer of Diba, which plans to make Internet devices for television sets.

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