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Microsoft details Vermeer buy

Microsoft's acquisition of Vermeer Technologies and its FrontPage Web authoring tools will make it easier for PC users to create pages. It will also help Microsoft gain ground lost to Netscape.

In a bid to slice Netscape Communications' share of the market for creating corporate "intranets," Microsoft will position Vermeer Technologies' FrontPage Web authoring tool as an adjunct to the Office suite of applications.

"We fully intend to make Web authoring a mass market phenomenon," said Pete Higgins, group vice president of applications and content. The goal is to make creating and sharing Web-based documents a "mass-market technology" as commonplace as using a word processor or spreadsheet, according to Higgins.

At a December 7 Internet strategy session, Higgins and other Microsoft officials stressed their intention to aggressively pursue a share of the lucrative intranet market. Intranets are used by many companies to post info and to create and distribute documents internally.

FrontPage, which is currently available for Windows and Unix users, contains an editor for creating and editing Web pages; an Explorer for visualizing and managing Web sites: support for WebBot agents for automating text searches, feedback forms, and threaded discussion forums; Wizards and templates; and a to-do list feature that enables status tracking of site tasks.

Microsoft officials said the $695 FrontPage will not be added to the Microsoft Office suite anytime soon. Under terms of the stock-only acquisition, most of the 40-person Vermeer staff will move to Redmond, Washington. Analysts estimate that about $130 million worth of Microsoft stock was exchanged in the deal.

"Microsoft found it easier to buy than invent," said David Coursey, editor and publisher of PC Letter Online, a computer industry newsletter. "It's a strategy the company has used in the past. The deal brings Microsoft mind share, market share, and some solid Internet server management technology," Coursey added.

Microsoft officials said FrontPage will continue to be available as a standalone product. Plans call for adding more Microsoft Office features to the program in the future. In addition, the company plans to eventually include its Visual Basic Script language in FrontPage, officials said. The company will probably also develop a "lite" version of the software with more simple setup procedures. The current version of FrontPage requires users to have a Web server running locally. Tighter ties to Microsoft's SQL Server database are also on the horizon, officials said.

"Vermeer's product is a great start, and a great acquisition for Microsoft," said Jerry Michalski, managing editor of Release 1.0, a publication that follows emerging technologies. "But the Web is more than a publishing platform. It's a communications vehicle, and Microsoft has a long way to go when it comes to adding support for features like telephony and advanced messaging."

As the market for authoring tools begins to expand, it will split into three main areas, said Microsoft's Higgins. Microsoft will respond to this evolution with simple HTML for basic programming, Web authoring tools like FrontPage for business users, and Internet Studio for high-end publishing.

One developer applauded the deal, saying it will help define the market and entice more users. "Microsoft is going to make it easy for almost anyone to develop HTML documents without leaving the familiar Office environment," said Richard Holcomb, chairman and CEO of Haht Software, a company that develops high-end Web site authoring tools.

"This brings Web publishing technology within reach of the average PC user," added Holcomb.