The specification, known as Open Software Description (OSD), will reduce the cost of PC ownership and maintenance for corporations, the two companies said.
"Open Software Description provides a data format or vocabulary to describe software components, their versions, their underlying structure, and their relationships to other components," the companies said in a statement.
OSD is based on XML, which stands for "extensible markup language." XML is not yet a standard but is under development by the World Wide Web Consortium.
The objective of OSD is to provide an interoperability standard for software description so that the client, usually a browser, will know how to download and install it. OSD is based on XML, as is the CDF specification. CDF stands for Channel Definition Format, which is Microsoft's technology specification for turning a Web site into a "push" channel.
Cornelius Willis, Microsoft's director of platform marketing, said that adoption of OSD does not require or promote the use of CDF. Today's press release did point out that OSD and CDF both are built on XML. "CDF provides the vocabulary for packaging Web pages; OSD provides the vocabulary for packaging software," it said.
Netscape also stressed that the implementation of OSD would standardize only a small part of the automatic software distribution process.
"This is an important piece of the software distribution puzzle," Rothschild added. "If we can get more of these pieces standardized, it's going to help everyone."
One Internet software analyst agreed that the promised ease of deployment is a long way off. "There's been a lot of progress made in updating and componentizing applications, but we're not at the point where you can swap out chunks of applications [over a network] with no one being the wiser," said Ross Rubin of market researcher Jupiter Communications.
Microsoft managers said that Internet Explorer will support OSD in an unspecified future version.
Marimba's Castanet software, designed specifically to "push" software updates from a server to desktop PCs, does not yet support OSD. "Once the standardization process is completed--and it could take some time--we will integrate OSD into Castanet," said Marimba spokeswoman Beth Johnson.
Despite the joint endorsement, Microsoft and Netscape differed somewhat in their assessment of XML. "We think XML will form the backbone of next generation of Web applications," Willis said. "The next generation will be about passing around data between computers. HTML's not going away, but it's being supplemented by data description."
"XML is useful and is good for creating an organized way to specify tags," said Alex Edelstein, Netscape assistant to the chief executive. "But it doesn't provide anything such as APIs that enable more structural use of information."
To provide the Web with such a flexible structuring scheme, Netscape is lobbying for a different standard called MCF, or Meta Content Format, originally developed by Apple Computer.
Despite Microsoft's recent buying spree of Internet software companies, there is no investment involved in today's announcement with Marimba.
Last month, Netscape agreed to distribute Marimba's client and server technology called Castanet, which pushes software applications directly to user desktops. One use is to let systems managers update software on workers' PCs via company networks.