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AOL plans spring launch for Netscape 6.0

The company's new Web browser will include integration with AOL Instant Messenger and the ability to let Web sites create custom-branded versions.

Netscape Communications is preparing to unveil a new Web browser that will include integration with AOL Instant Messenger and the ability to let Web sites create custom-branded versions.

Netscape 6.0, previewed last night by AOL president of interactive services Barry Schuler during a financial analysts' meeting in New York, is the first completely new browser software from Netscape Communications since its acquisition by AOL in November 1998. The company plans to launch the software this spring, according to AOL spokeswoman Anne Bentley.

Netscape missed shipment of its fifth-generation Communicator browser last summer and has since seen the existing 4.7 version lose market share to Microsoft's rival Internet Explorer. Studies have shown that corporate users are increasingly migrating to IE.

The new browser looks similar to Communicator 4.7, with some noticeable differences, according to Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodget, who attended the AOL briefing.

Netscape 6.0 will have several Web applications integrated into the browser, such as AOL's popular Instant Messenger software, Blodget said.

But the most notable difference is the way AOL said it will distribute the product, according to Blodget. The company plans to allow Web sites to launch their own branded versions of the browser, a strategic shift from its current strategy of keeping its technology squarely Netscape-branded.

The new policy means that Web sites can offer visitors customized browser versions as a way to draw and retain users and build brand loyalty.

According to Blodget, AOL Puppet masters: Who controls the  Nethighlighted this strategy by showing ways in which Time Warner's media and entertainment properties could use the browser. AOL announced last month that it will merge with Time Warner. Should the combination go through, AOL will control Time Warner's vast array of content, giving the company a broad launching pad for Netscape 6.0.

"CNN, for example, can create a CNN starter icon and a browser that is customized to work very well with CNN content," Blodget said in an interview.

Netscape 6.0's technology also will support AOL's moves onto non-PC devices, according to Bentley. AOL is trying to push its service onto PDAs, cell phones, TV set-top boxes and other remote products as a way to keep its customers on its services.

Until now, Netscape has relied partly on its open-source development organization, Mozilla.org, to speed development of its Communicator browser, with volunteers and paid developers refining the product.

But despite Mozilla's efforts, See news analysis: What AOL stands to lose in browser warAOL has acknowledged that it has been late in updating its browser technology. Schuler said in a previous interview that AOL had planned to unveil its new browser strategy shortly before the new year.

The Netscape 6.0 preview coincided with last night's demonstration of AOL TV, the company's interactive television product. The service allows users to enhance their television viewing with more Internet-like features; its accompanying set-top boxes will be released this summer.