Called Netscape's AOL Instant Messenger Service, the feature will tell registered users of the next version of Netscape's Navigator or Communicator client software when someone on their specified list of "buddies" is also online, then let them communicate directly with designated buddies.
AOL's buddy list, which lets users chat online when they are signed on, has been an extremely popular feature for the online service. More than 130 million "buddy" messages are sent every day, according to the company. AOL has been beta testing an Internet version of its buddy list service since the spring--the same technology that will be built into Netscape's software.
The technology is somewhat similar to Internet relay chat (IRC), which is supported in Netscape Communicator and used with some variants on business intranets. But some firewalls block IRC and some companies have rules about external messaging services.
"By integrating the client software [for AOL's buddy list] into Netscape Navigator and branded client software, 9 million AOL consumer users all can talk to any Netscape user," said Mike Homer, Netscape's senior vice president of marketing and sales.
"It works a lot like the telephone--one-to-one communication--but it's online instead of being a telephone," added Homer. "It's a convenient way for people at work to get or send messages to each other. It's direct and instantaneous."
"This is a cobranded instant-messaging service that we think will benefit both AOL members and Netscape users as they are able to instantly communicate with each other," said AOL spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg. "It has incredible business applications--it's a real productivity enhancer."
The nonexclusive deal also represents a mending of relations between Netscape and AOL, which in March 1996 dumped Netscape's Navigator as its preferred Web browser in favor of Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
AOL has been moving aggressively to expand the number of people using AOL branded services on the Internet. AOL has a deal pending to acquire more than 2 million CompuServe online users, also boosting its mass. Although CompuServe has announced planned Internet enhancements to its service, the two companies aren't working together until the deal closes, probably next year.
Netscape hopes the buddy list feature will differentiate its new Web browser, due to be released within 30 days, from Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0, which was released September 30. Although IE remains AOL's preferred Web browser, the buddy list deal includes opportunities for Netscape to promote its browser to AOL members.
When it's ready, the service will be available to current Netscape users who download software from Netscape's Web site. Homer said the new buddy list will promote that site, relaunched last month as Netcenter.
But the deal also means real revenue to Netscape: AOL's buddy list feature includes advertising, and the two companies will share revenues for ads seen by Netscape users. Homer declined to say how that income will be divided.
The service will be accessible from an "instant messaging" button which will be located on the toolbar of Netscape Navigator and Communicator and from the Netscape Community section within Netcenter.
AOL will also develop a featured channel for Netscape Netcaster, the push component of its upcoming browser. AOL's Netcaster channel will be accessible from Netscape Netcaster as well as from the Channel Finder found within Netscape Netcenter.
Separately, AOL Studios, which creates online content, said it will provide original content through Netscape Netcaster. Several AOL Greenhouse properties due to launch this month, including the Entertainment Asylum, will be distributed through Netcaster. So will AOL's Thrive, The Hub, AstroNet, Hecklers Online, and Extreme Fans.