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Browser multitasks as "Internet Desktop"

Browser maker NeoPlanet is teaming up with portal site Lycos and its partner Valent Software to offer a browser that integrates instant messaging, email, and "virtual communities."

As the battle over instant messaging heats up, one company is combining Web browsing and messaging in a single browser product in an effort to get a leg up.

Browser maker NeoPlanet is teaming up with portal site Lycos and its partner Valent Software, in which Lycos has an equity stake, to offer a browser that lets users surf the Net, send instant messages and email, and participate in what it calls "virtual communities."

NeoPlanet offers a browser that companies and individual users can customize with their own branding or look. The company builds its browser around Microsoft's browser engine and has released a preview of a browser built around America Online's browser engine as well.

The companies Portals: the new desktop? call NeoPlanet Version 5.0 an "Internet Desktop," capitalizing on the trend of migrating applications and services traditionally found on the computer desktop to Web sites--or, in this case, to the Web browser itself.

More specifically, the launch of NeoPlanet 5.0 coincides with the recognition of instant messaging as a crucial communications tool. The technology has taken center stage this summer as Microsoft and AOL have battled over use of the technology.

"The point of the Internet Desktop is that it has all the applications a user wants to use online," said Drew Cohen, NeoPlanet chief executive. "We had a browser and an email application, but now we have added an instant messaging application with a community-centric view. Over time you should expect to see NeoPlanet offer more and more of what was previously available as individual applications."

NeoPlanet's new offering also will get a boost as Packard Bell NEC makes it the default front end for its Urocket online service, launched in June with connectivity provider UUNet and content provider Lycos.

Under the deal with NeoPlanet, Urocket revenues are shared among the three companies. NeoPlanet typically makes money by driving traffic to content and e-commerce partners listed on channels built into the browser, as well as from advertising.

Instant messaging poses one of the biggest opportunities for companies trying to amass loyal user bases. AOL so far has owned the market, with about 78 million registrations roughly split between its home-grown AOL Instant Messenger and its acquired ICQ instant messaging service. (Since one person can enter multiple registrations on both services, AOL has fewer than 78 million people using its services.)

In combining the browser and the messaging software, NeoPlanet is taking a page from AOL's proprietary service playbook.

"AOL has always been a service provider," Cohen said. "They've always thought of the entire end-user experience, including community, communication, and content as an integrated experience. Browser and instant messaging applications have been about technology. What we're doing is taking a kind of hybrid approach where we're combining these independent applications into an integrated product without being tied to a proprietary online service."

Some have speculated that Microsoft may try to catch up to AOL by wrapping its messaging software into its Internet Explorer browser, which by most accounts has pulled ahead of AOL's Communicator browser in market share.

A Microsoft spokesperson said the company is looking into ways to "enhance" its various messaging applications but declined to comment on any plans to put messaging capability directly into the browser.

NeoPlanet has long sought to position its product as a unique option in the browser market, which has been dominated by Microsoft's Internet Explorer and the Communicator browser that America Online acquired with its purchase of Netscape Communications. NeoPlanet's most unique feature so far has been to let users determine the look and feel of the browser interface.

NeoPlanet 5.0 will offer direct access to Lycos Clubs, a service launched in April that lets users set up special-interest pages and send instant messages to other members. Club users can also post photographs, transfer files, and create home pages.

In addition to Packard Bell and Lycos, New Line Cinema, Network Associates, Loral Space & Communications, and others will customize NeoPlanet for their customers.

NeoPlanet is one of a handful of alternatives to Internet Explorer and Communicator in the desktop browser market. Another alternative is the browser from Norway's Opera Software, which developers have lauded for its adherence to Web standards. Another product, recently launched, is the Multiple Unit Development browser, or MUDBrowser, from Sigma.