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Netscape will do battle for desktops

Netscape wants potential would-be writers to know that it does have a plan to combat Microsoft: targeting its dominance of the PC desktop.

Microsoft this week made its most significant effort yet to establish itself as a leading player in the browser market, but Netscape Communications wants would-be obituary writers to know that it has a plan to combat Microsoft's most powerful weapon: its dominance of the PC desktop.

The strategy, revealed to CNET yesterday by Netscape vice president of technology Marc Andreessen, includes plans to develop a new version of its Web browser that will merge the capabilities of Navigator into a wide range of PC and non-PC operating systems. This will counter what many this week have said could be Microsoft's most serious blow to Navigator, the integration of its browser and Windows 95 that will occur with the release of Explorer 4.0.

Within the next two weeks, Netscape will also detail its plan to embrace non-PC platforms where Microsoft has no real tangible advantage at this point, such as network computers, set-top boxes, and personal digital assistants.

Netscape is developing a new version of its browser for release in the next six to 12 months, much like Microsoft is with its Explorer 4.0. The new Navigator will effectively erase the difference between viewing information on the Web and on a local PC hard disk, Andreessen said.

Both Internet Explorer 4.0 and the future version of Navigator could radically expand the reach and impact of Web browsers by allowing users to navigate through local files and folders as a series of hyperlinks, search for data through HTML forms, and run multimedia files. Although Navigator and Internet Explorer users will still be able to view PC data through the traditional file managers of Windows, Macintosh, or other platforms, both companies plan to make Web browsers the predominant interface for users working on a PC. Andreessen wouldn't specify if this version is the same thing as Galileo, the code name for a well-documented upgrade of Navigator due by the end of the year.

Netscape's plan may have originated well before Microsoft's latest assault with this week's release of Internet Explorer 3.0. But with some industry observers already predicting that Microsoft will severely erode Navigator's dominance of the browser market, Netscape wants to spread the word quickly that not only is it releasing its own updated version of its browser, but it is also moving to address the more serious issue of the browser-OS convergence.

"The trend that we're seeing and that we're trying to encourage is that more and more people are spending more and more of their day inside of Navigator," said Andreessen.

According to analysts, extending the Web browsing metaphor to PC desktops has compelling benefits, such as easier access to and management of the ever-expanding amounts of data on computers. Andressen said that Navigator could, for example, allow users to view data through a 3D VRML interface.

"If you look at the size of hard disks, they've just gone through the roof. In the future, you can see ten gigabytes of information on PCs in the future and DVDs [digital video discs], all adding up to something monstrous," said John Robb, an Internet analyst at Forrester Research. "Web browsers were built to view content from a variety of different sources, large quantities of information, in relatively short periods of time."

Like Internet Explorer 4.0, Netscape's new browser will allow Web content providers to "push" information to PCs, that is automatically send news feeds, stock quotes, and other data to a desktop.

"You'll have regions of the desktop that you can drag and drop and resize and push information out to," Andreessen said. "Instead of thinking about Web pages, people are going to start thinking about channels. You're going to be running a tuner instead of a browser."

Netscape's browser strategy still has one significant advantage over Microsoft's: it is accessible to companies and users who haven't standardized to Windows 95 or Windows NT.

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates acknowledged this week that Microsoft hasn't developed a plan to offer the hard-disk browsing version of Internet Explorer 4.0 on Unix, Macintosh, or Windows 3.x, the operating system which by Microsoft's own estimates still runs on 49 percent of all desktops.

Netscape plans to continue to support all of the more than 15 platforms that the browser currently runs on, including Windows 3.x, handheld computers, and NCs, the soon-to-arrive $500 Net surfing boxes based on Oracle's design.

Some analysts think that Netscape's cross-platform strategy could pay off, particularly for companies that have been slow to move to Windows 95 and NT.

"Everyone's talking about Explorer 3.0, but it's only on 21 percent of the operating systems out there," said Daniel Rimer, Internet analyst at Hambrecht & Quist.

But Rimer added that Microsoft is appearing to ignore Windows 3.x precisely because it wants to encourage users to upgrade to Windows 95 or NT. "If I were Microsoft, I wouldn't be backward compatible either. The whole idea is to move everyone forward with iterations of the OS."

That may leave a sizable hole for Netscape to fill, and Andreessen wants folks to know Netscape's covering it.

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