America Online subsidiary Netscape Communications today unveiled a
redesign of its Netcenter Web portal in an effort to target consumers who
access the Internet at work.
As previously reported,
Netscape has toyed with new ideas for giving Netcenter a refurbished image
to appeal to a market it calls the "business professional."
With the new look, the site adds a "today's features" section that updates
daily with top news headlines. The site also features two content tabs: one
labeled "business" for stock quotes and small business links, and one
labeled "leisure" for local events, TV listings and sports headlines.
The redesign is one of the first transformations
to appear on Netcenter since AOL's $9 billion acquisition of the company
closed in March. AOL has stated in the past that it wants to turn Netscape
into its primary service for attracting Net users at work, since users of
the AOL proprietary service generally log on during prime-time hours in the
AOL is looking into a number of strategies for Netscape, including the
creation of a Netscape-branded online service for U.S. users; it
also is considering using its technology in Internet appliances.
Although the company declined to comment specifically on these ideas,
Netscape plans to announce new initiatives to more closely integrate
Netcenter's content into newer versions of its Communicator browser, which
has been delayed another two
months. The delays may be costly, as results from recent studies show
Microsoft's Internet Explorer gaining in popularity among business users.
"We will be prepared after the first of the year on how Netcenter and
Netscape the browser will be deployed into the marketplace more
aggressively than ever before," said Jim Martin, Netcenter's general
manager, who joined AOL in June.
Martin replaced former head Mike Homer, who is on sabbatical.
According to Martin, marketing Netcenter to business users is further
indicative of AOL's attempts to brand its services to specific audiences
with specific preferences. For example, AOL has said that its
CompuServe online service targets Internet users who want discounted
subscriptions. AOL also has said its ICQ instant messaging services appeals
to a younger, more international crowd.
"With Netscape, you have a daytime business professional," Martin said.
"There's nothing wrong with finding a way to parse an audience and then
serve a product to them. This will prevent us from stepping on AOL's toes."
Marketing a service to business users is not a novel strategy for AOL. The
online giant in the past has tried marketing CompuServe as a service for
"busy professionals" and as a "premium" brand for higher-income users. But
because of CompuServe's stagnant growth numbers and the growing popularity
of Internet service provider discount deals, AOL has tweaked the service's image into
a "value" brand by offering it with PC rebate deals.
For Martin, the announcement breaks a silence from his division since he
took charge. Netcenter has not come out with any major product releases or
strategic announcements since his appointment--mainly because of his focus
on figuring out ways to program to the Netcenter audience, Martin said.
He has his work cut out for him. Despite having AOL's seemingly limitless
resources behind him, Martin has a list of portal veterans such as Yahoo,
Excite and Lycos to contend with. These sites have attracted millions of
daily visitors and a significant chunk of online advertising dollars.
What cuts Netcenter out from the rest of the portal pack? Martin says it
takes some publishing tricks learned from years of running magazines such
as MacWorld for International Data Group.
"What was missing [from Netcenter] was the cover, the cut lines,
the attitude and the style of the publication," Martin said. "We added the
cover to what we hope will be a much more interesting place for people to be."
But some analysts question whether these changes will increase Netcenter's chances against portal veterans.
"The question becomes, what's the unique differentiated value that
Netcenter has over one of those [other portals]?" said Clay Ryder,
chief analyst at market research firm Zona Research. "Is the daytime user
necessarily going to be as swayed by packaging, or is it going to be swayed
by price and usability and ease of access?"
Other analysts, such as Dan O'Brien of market research firm Forrester Research, took a more critical view of the launch. In O'Brien's opinion, the redesign does not satisfy the needs of the business user or of the consumer, but "straddles" these two markets instead of committing to one.
Furthermore, O'Brien suggested that Netscape should either redirect users to AOL.com or commit to the business user by piggybacking on its partnership with Sun Microsystems and offering a product for its Intranet market.
"Horoscopes and screensavers are distractions," O'Brien wrote in an analyst note on Forrester's Web site. "A true concentration on business professionals would promote calendaring, email forwarding and file-storage services; news and research about occupations and industries; and an intuitive, uncluttered interface."