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Netscape to update Communicator

The firm will announce the latest version of its Communicator Internet client software Wednesday, sources say.

Netscape Communications will announce the latest version of its Communicator Internet software Wednesday, according to sources familiar with the release.

Communicator 4.5 will include features that Netscape has already announced, such as its "Smart Browsing" technology that links the Web browser more closely with its Netcenter portal site. Other browser enhancements include features that will make it easier for users to "roam," or share computers between home, work, and elsewhere through automatic personal configurations.

Netscape declined to comment on Wednesday's announcement.

Netscape's Smart Browsing initiative includes a number of ways to help users, particularly neophytes, find what they are looking for on the Web.

The first of these Source code for the masses new search methods, called "Internet Keywords," essentially lets users skip a step in the search process by typing keywords directly into the browser location bar rather than into a separate search box. While it may seem a minor improvement, analysts praise the keyword function as a helpful tool for the vast market of those making their first steps onto the Net.

"Any time you eliminate a mode or a step in the search process, you have greatly simplified the process for the masses," said Vernon Keenan, analyst with Zona Research.

Internet Keywords also will help Netscape point browser users toward its Netcenter portal site. When a user types in a keyword that is very broad in scope, such as "cars," the browser will go to Netcenter's channel on that topic.

Another Smart Browsing function featured in Communicator 4.5 is a button called "What's Related" that functions something like an automatically generated list of recommended related links. Netscape has developed this feature in conjunction with Alexa Internet, which gathers the "What's Related" links for individual Web pages.

A third Smart Browsing feature included in Communicator 4.5 is NetWatch, a set of tools to filter out online sites based on a user's settings.

The two Net site screening features integrated into the browser are RSACi and SafeSurf Web site ratings systems. Microsoft Internet Explorer already supports both systems, which block access to sites containing adult language, violence, and nudity, for example, based on ratings applied to Web pages by content providers.

Netscape's support is a big boost for Net ratings systems, which have been slow to catch on with Web sites and users because of criticism from free-speech advocates.

In addition to the Smart Browsing features targeted at newer Internet users, Communicator 4.5 also will include improvements for business customers and for those who toggle back and forth between home and work computers. These types of users are a main focus of the company's Netcenter portal site.

One of the business improvements includes beefed up support for Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP). Previous versions of Communicator have supported LDAP, but the implementation in version 4.5 will be tied to the client address book.

This will let users look up an employee's name in a corporate directory, for example, and if several names come up, the client address book can then access the corporate directory for more information such as job title or department.

In addition to corporations with extensive intranets, Internet service providers also could provide these kinds of address book and directory services to users with Communicator 4.5, but comparatively few ISPs currently run LDAP directories.

Communicator 4.5 also will feature improved support for Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP). IMAP is an email protocol that lets users do more than they can with standard POP-based email.

The protocol allows the server to be used for tasks previously reserved for the user's computer, including the storage and management of email. IMAP also lets users share folders on the server.

Analysts praised the direction of the new browser for both the improvements aimed at neophytes and those aimed at corporate users.

"Netscape is aligning the browser See related story:
Netscape extends search contracts more and more with Netcenter," said Paul Hagen of Forrester Research. Noting that Internet companies such as Microsoft and America Online are using their browsers in similar ways, Hagen said, "I find it sort of fascinating that there's a piece of software that aligns with a media property."

Current versions of Communicator only provide links to Netcenter. Version 4.5 will integrate features of the portal with those of the browser to achieve "cross-pollination."

This integration, according to Hagen and others, could give Netscape an important boost in its battle with Yahoo and Excite to become the leading Internet portal site.