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Web sites' challenge to software makers heats up

Sites that offer desktop applications such as electronic address books and file storage over the Net are revving up to challenge traditional software makers through new products and appeals to software developers.

Tech Industry
Web sites that offer desktop applications over the Net are revving up to challenge traditional software makers through new products and appeals to software developers.

The sites offer a variety of applications such as electronic calendars and address books, file storage, and email management tools. Web-based email sites like Hotmail, now owned by Microsoft, led the charge, attracting users with a free service that users could access from any computer with Internet access.

Now the trend is to offer an entire suite of applications to lure users to the site as their first and most frequent point of reference on the Web, much the way search and content aggregation sites such as Yahoo and Lycos have amassed some of the Web's largest audiences.

In fact, portal Portals: the new desktop? sites have taken a keen interest in the Web-based applications. Microsoft, for one, in April acquired Jump Networks--which lets users access their email, address books, and calendars from any Internet-connected computer--for MSN. Also in April, America Online acquired Web calendar and event planning service When.com.

But traditional office software makers are not standing still. Microsoft may be close to launching a version of its Office desktop productivity software that can be leased and used over the Web, possibly through MSN. Other makers of desktop software, including Corel and Lotus Development, are also planning forays into the Web world with hosted and rentable appplications.

Sharing the development work--and the wealth?
Though most of these Web-based application sites offer a predetermined collection of tools and services, a new type of Web business aims to get independent software developers to create and add applications for it.

Similar to operating system makers--particularly Microsoft, with its Windows OS--these sites are promising to offer independent software developers site-specific programming shortcuts called application programming interfaces, or APIs, with which to build their applications.

Among the Web sites planning to publish their APIs in an effort to attract third-party developers are Desktop.com and Myinternetdesktop.com.

As first reported by CNET News.com, Desktop.com was founded in December by the creators of RocketMail--a free email site later bought by Yahoo. The site garnered $29 million in venture capital financing in August.

Desktop.com made its beta, or trial, launch yesterday and said it will release its API later in the fall. My Internet Desktop has launched a handful of applications and plans to release its API to third-party developers in October.

Both sites will be faced with the task of motivating developers to write for their platform.

After asking developers to join its developer network, My Internet Desktop plans to offer its contributing developers a cut of revenues from advertising and fees that users pay for additional storage space or extra bookmarks.

Desktop.com plans to offer an infrastructure that will let developers of more business-oriented applications charge end users directly. The company said it had other developer incentives in the works but declined to elaborate on them.

Application developers for both sites will be able to work in comparatively simple Web authoring and scripting languages like HTML and JavaScript, as opposed to more complex computer programming languages such as C++.

Building an audience and retrofitting a browser
One site early to the Web-based applications game is Visto, which yesterday said it had more than 800,000 registered users of its service, up from 100,000 at the beginning of the year.

Visto, which launched in 1996, is gearing up to provide service to the expected boom of people accessing the Internet through mobile computing devices and other PC-alternative machines. The company is offering access via 3Com's Palm Pilot, as well as Nokia's wireless phones, according to Visto chief executive Doug Brackbill.

In a sign that suites of Web-based applications are taking off with consumers, Brackbill said Visto's growth--up from 500,000 in July--was accelerating as the year progressed.

Web sites are not the only ones assembling application suites. Browser company NeoPlanet is positioning its product as an "Internet Desktop." The browser, whose interface can be customized by companies and individual users, offers an email application, an instant messaging application, and a promise of more individual applications to come in addition to the browsing component.

This week NeoPlanet added a new feature to its browser-based desktop, integrating Macromedia's Flash animation player into NeoPlanet 5.0. The player, which combines basic animated graphics with sound, will be used for portions of the browser's actual interface, in addition to playing Web content written for Flash. NeoPlanet is hawking the Flash integration as a boost to its advertisers, which advertise on the browser interface.

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