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Netscape rolls out portal beta

The firm is inviting the public to tour its Netcenter construction zone with the launch of the Netcenter 2.0 beta.

Netscape Communications today invited the public to tour its Netcenter construction zone with the launch of the Netcenter 2.0 beta.

The beta site features the launch of channels cobranded by Netscape and its Netcenter partners, including Excite.

"We're thrilled that we've hit this milestone," said Ken Rutsky, director of Netcenter's business and news channels. "We're still filling in the pieces of it, but we wanted to preview the site in beta so people could get a feeling of what it's going to be like."

The beta version also is soliciting user feedback, and comments that have come in so far today have been "really positive," according to Rutsky.

"People like the new layout, how easy it is to navigate and how quick it is to load," Rutsky said.

Netcenter, the first version of which launched in September, has been undergoing extensive renovations in the past two months as Netscape attempts to catapult the site past its competitors in the feverishly hot portal market.

Portals are Web sites that aggregate news, entertainment, and other content, and also offer services such as free email and personalization of the start page. The goal of portal sites is to become Web users' point of entry to the Web. Portals have become the most highly valued real estate on the Web because of their regular exposure to a potentially vast consumer audience.

Netscape got into the portal race comparatively late, but came equipped with a powerful advantage: Because the Netscape home page is the default start-up for users of its Navigator browser--which still enjoys majority market share--the company has an instant audience tens of millions strong for whatever it chooses to put on its front door.

In January, Netscape put Netcenter on its front door.

The beta launched today is the product of a massive two-month building effort, dubbed "Project 60," which since the beginning of May has entailed a rapid-fire series of partnerships with companies providing content and services.

The launch of the Netcenter beta coincides with today's launch of Microsoft's Start.com beta. Start.com is Microsoft's portal-in-progress that will combine a number of Microsoft properties including Hotmail and the Microsoft Network.

Netcenter's new partners include USA.net, which will provide free email; Netcenter portal competitor Excite, which paid $70 million to power Netcenter's new Netscape-branded search engine, gain its own exposure on the Netcenter search page, and program many of Netcenter's content channels; and the MonsterBoard, which is coproducing the career channel that launches with today's beta release.

Netcenter's partner for its computing and Internet channel is NEWS.COM publisher CNET: The Computer Network.

Cosmetically, the Netcenter 2.0 beta features a larger, more readable font; a wider and more centered header and search bar; more prominently displayed news headlines; and its 16 content channels organized into two columns.

On the content side, Netscape has an agreement with Excite to cobrand certain channels and to program others by itself. Channels including entertainment, kids and family, news, personal finance, and sports have yet to be programmed, and currently link to Excite's directory information. Netscape will announce content partnerships for those areas this quarter. When Netcenter 2.0 launches at the end of the month, Netscape will use Excite content on an interim basis.

As search engines, media companies, and software firms have tried their hand at the portal game, some observers have noted that with each redesign, portals including Excite, Yahoo, CNET's Snap, and now Netcenter are looking increasingly the same.

"Everyone's designs are similar in that we're trying to get people the information they want quickly," Rutsky said. "But the front page is just one piece of the service. Where the rubber hits the road is with the quality of that information, and from that standpoint we're going to have the best site out there."

Netcenter 2.0's official launch is scheduled for the end of this month. Additions expected between now and then include free email and personalization.