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Netscape pushes Netcaster

The Web-surfing software leader outlines its hopes to become a player in "push" technology.

Netscape Communications (NSCP), a company that became the leading provider of Internet software seemingly overnight, today outlined how it hopes to become a player in the emerging "push" technology market.

As reported by CNET's NEWS.COM last week, Netscape detailed its strategy for pushing--or automatically delivering--Net information to users of its Communicator Internet client. Formerly known as Constellation, the push software will be renamed Netcaster and will be incorporated into the next beta version of Communicator, due within 30 days.

"We think we know what people want in this new era of push technology," Netscape chief executive Jim Barksdale said.

Analysts said Netscape appears to be transferring its open technology approach to its media and push strategies. As the company cheerfully embraces publishers, they note, rival Microsoft is becoming a media company itself, possibly putting itself in competition with giants such as Time Warner.

Netscape's Marc Andreessen and Mike Homer, and CNNfn's Richard Zahradnik

"With push technology, the segment of [the media industry] for broadcasting and video are going to rush to the Net," said Mike Homer, senior vice president of marketing.

"Existing content can be grandfathered into Netcaster very easily," added Marc Andreessen, senior vice president of technology at Netscape, who demonstrated the technology today at an event in South San Francisco.

The South San Francisco conference center, where the rollout and demonstration was held, included participants from a telephone conference call. The Netcaster demo was shown on a big screen and included ABC and CNNfn being "pushed" to users.

Content partners said Netcaster would enable information to find users rather than the other way around, making it a more user-friendly experience. "We are trying to get the newspaper on the side table of your bed or desk," said Rich Zahradnik, vice president of CNNfn.

As with the browser wars, however, Netscape's new technology may end up clashing with that of Microsoft (MSFT). The conflict could impede the popularity of push technology among many publishers. Microsoft is digging in its heels for a proposed push standard called channel definition format (CDF), something that Netscape steadfastly refuses to support.

Push technology was pioneered by companies such as PointCast as a means of transmitting news headlines, sports scores, and other information directly to users, doing away with the need to request such material from Web sites. PointCast, notably, has thrown its support behind Microsoft's push effort. PointCast has cut a deal to provide content to users of the Active Desktop, the push technology included with Microsoft's latest browser, Internet Explorer 4.0.

Netscape has lined up some significant endorsements of its own, including more than 20 publishers that will provide information "channels" for Netcaster users, according to Bob Lisbonne, vice president of client technology. Among the publishers are ABC News, HotWired, CNNfn, Time Warner, ZDNet, Gartner Group, and CNET: The Computer Network.

Also today, Infoseek (SEEK) said that it would form a special corporate information division that will use Netcaster and other technologies to deliver business-oriented information from hundreds of different publishers to users.

In addition, 15 software companies, including Verity, Freeloader, Wayfarer Communications, and Datachannel, have said that their push servers will be able to transmit information to Netcaster clients. And Netscape has a special deal with Marimba to include that company's Castanet tuner with Netcaster.

Publishers can also use ordinary Web servers to broadcast to Netscape's software. Netcaster will include Channel Finder, a menu of information channels to which users can subscribe.

While Netcaster will let Web sites easily broadcast information, publishers can also create a graphical user interface called a Webtop. The dynamic screen will act as a background on a user's computer desktop. In addition, Netcaster will include offline browsing capabilities that allow users to retrieve portions of sites for perusal when disconnected from the network. This process avoids long, tedious downloads.

Yesterday, Netscape executives said Netcaster will rely strictly on existing Internet standards like HTML, Java, and JavaScript. Therefore, the company saw no need to support Microsoft's channel definition format specification.

"We have no plans to support it because we don't see any need for it," Lisbonne said. "We don't see the need for another format or protocol."

But Microsoft said CDF is an important technology that will allow publishers to tailor information for broadcasting, offering pushed information on specific areas of interest.

"They're coming late to the party with yet another push solution that doesn't do anything different from what is done today," Yusuf Mehdi, group product manager at Microsoft, said of Netscape. "The market doesn't need another push solution. It needs to take push to another level."

In reality, publishers are likely to end up supporting both Netcaster and Microsoft's Active Desktop--or neither--until the two companies arrive at a rapprochement on standards.

Netscape has somewhat scaled back its original plans for Constellation. Originally, the software was intended to be more than a client for receiving pushed information broadcasts, allowing users to transport their files over a network when roaming from computer to computer.

Although some of those capabilities remain--such as the ability to access a common Webtop regardless of the computer a user is on--Netscape has delayed a feature that would have allowed users to work on desktop files, such as a Word document or Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, and to replicate the files back to a server.

Those replication capabilities will come with the next major version of Communicator, code-named Mercury, said Netscape's Lisbonne.

Netcaster is promised to ship in its final form, with Communicator, by June of this year.