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Netscape updates Netcenter

The firm's Project 60 comes to a close as it launches the first major revision to its Netcenter portal site.

Netscape Communications' Project 60 came to a close last night as the company launched the first major revision to its Netcenter portal site.

Project 60 was Netscape's two-month campaign to build out Netcenter, the company's entry into the piping-hot portal market. Netscape since early May has announced a string of deals with companies that provide portal necessities such as Web-based email and improved search engine technology. The company on June 16 launched a beta release of Netcenter 2.0.

Portals are sites that aggregate information and services in an attempt to become Web surfers' first stop and frequent point of reference. Their ability to draw users and advertising dollars has made them some of the most valuable properties on the Web, and interest in them has triggered feverish deal-making between the sites and media companies eager to get in on the game.

With the beta Portalopoly release of Netcenter 2.0, Netscape introduced content channels coproduced and cobranded by Netscape and Excite, Netscape's partner and competitor in the portal arena.

In addition to the channel content found in the beta release, the final version of Netcenter 2.0 will feature services that are standard issue with most portal sites, including Web-based email produced in partnership with USA.net. But that feature will not launch until midweek.

As reported last week, Netcenter is finalizing a new partner for its white pages directory listings. Those listings, currently provided under an expiring deal with Yahoo, are to be produced in conjunction with WhoWhere, according to sources close to the deal. Netscape yesterday declined to identify its partner because final contracts have not been signed yet.

New yellow pages directory information to replace Yahoo's also will go live in the next few days. Netscape declined to identify its new yellow pages partner.

Later this week, Netscape will launch Netcenter's channel for localized information, developed in conjunction with Excite. Another Netcenter 2.0 feature, accessible only to users of Netscape's Navigator browser version 4.0 or above, will let users designate Netcenter as their default start page with the click of a button on the front door.

Jennifer Bailey, Netscape's senior vice president for business development and marketing, said that with the exception of the new directory and email services, Netcenter 2.0 will not differ very much from its beta.

"It was incredible the amount of positive feedback we got from the beta," Bailey said, adding that only minor changes stemmed from beta user suggestions.

With the stated goal of becoming the leading Web portal by the year 2000, Netcenter can boast considerable gains in its short history. The site was launched in September of last year, and a few months later came to occupy the front door at the Netscape.com domain. This real estate is highly trafficked because it is the default location for those who use Netscape's market-leading Web browser.

Because of its advantage as Navigator's default location, Netscape has been able to surmount its late entry into the portal race to amass more than 5.4 million signed members. Traffic has spiked 20 percent in the last quarter, and statistics from research firm I/Pro show the site with 8.5 million unique daily visitors, Bailey said.

Despite the expiration of the Project 60 build-out, Netscape will continue to add features to the site, including in the near term stock quotes, the Netcenter personalization service called My Netscape, and the browsing techniques grouped under Netscape's "Smart Browsing" initiative. But Smart Browsing features will have to wait for the shipment of Communicator 4.5, announced earlier this month.

With higher-than-usual traffic during business hours, Netcenter has a target audience that is somewhat less consumer-oriented than that of its major competitors. This focus is reflected in Netcenter offerings, such as the Small Business channel, its Business Journal, and the Online Career Center.

"We are targeting primarily adult professional users," Bailey said. "We don't have a lot of content programming that's targeted at kids or seniors, for example, though we will have some in the Kids and Family channel."