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Netscape's e-commerce push

Kicking off its corporate strategy day, Netscape says two new versions of its Net commerce software are being beta-tested.

Kicking off its corporate strategy day, Netscape Communications today announced that two new versions of its Internet commerce software are now in a limited beta test, underlining e-commerce as a key element in the company's future.

Version 2.0 of Netscape's MerchantXpert, for selling on the Net to consumers, and SellerXpert, for selling to business customers, will be generally available by year's end, the company said. Today's announcements come as top Netscape executives outlined for industry analysts and press how its divergent lines of business fit into a coherent strategy.

Pressed by Microsoft's free Web browser and hurting financially, Netscape opted in January to give away both its Web browser and the source code in it.

Since then, the company has stressed two principal lines of business--enterprise software, including its CommerceXpert line of Internet commerce software, and its popular Web site.

The company is rapidly turning its Netcenter home page into a portal site, attempting to vie against Yahoo and Excite as the first place Internet users visit after signing on.

The stated goal to date has been to draw business users to Netcenter, but the company has only hinted at how it will connect its publishing business to enterprise software.

"I hope Netscape will take these e-commerce software announcements and leverage them to create a business-oriented marketplace on Netcenter," said analyst Vernon Keenan of Zona Research.

"I believe that services on the Net will eventually compete with these types of software products," he added.

Netscape has already hinted at that direction. In February, e-commerce software chief Steve Savignano suggested that Netcenter might host e-commerce sites as a outsourcing service for other companies.

Last September, CEO Jim Barksdale said Netscape was exploring the idea of serving as an intermediary for companies and consumers to present and pay bills online.

"We believe that the ultimate business-to-business portal site that facilitates transactions is going to be the next big thing in Internet guides," Zona's Keenan said.

While Netscape may play catch-up to earlier arrivals as a consumer portal, no site has emerged as the leader specifically for business users. Nor has any general-purpose business marketplace caught on, though industry-specific sites for plastics, electronic components, and other commodities have launched or are in development.

For its e-commerce software, Netscape is targeting ISPs and what the company dubs "enterprise service providers" or ESPs, the IT departments of big companies that serve large numbers of widely dispersed users, said Daphne Carmeli, vice president of marketing for Netscape's applications division.

"We are targeting the high end," Carmeli said. "What's new is the breadth and depth of our solutions."

For business-oriented sellers, Netscape said its next generation of SellerXpert will focus on mimicking their existing trading relationships on the Internet. Enhancements include greater support of EDI (electronic data interchange or automated transactions between computers) and OBI (Open Buying on the Internet), an emerging protocol for business catalogs.

SellerXpert 2.0 also will integrate better with legacy systems such as software from SAP and Oracle.

MerchantXpert, for selling to consumers, will emphasize personalization of content for specific visitors. It also is being redesigned based on the applications architecture Netscape acquired with Kiva Software, and it will feature more robust catalogs and parametric searches.

Among its e-commerce software wins, Netscape recently trumpeted a major sale to Citibank. In a less publicized sale, Netscape's former e-commerce partner GE Information System last month made a major sale of Netscape's e-commerce software to AvNet, a $5.4 billion vendor of electronic components.

Separately, networking equipment provider Bay Networks announced it will bundle a copy of Netscape's Directory Server with every Contivity switching device it ships. The Contivity line of products is optimized for secure access from central sites to outlying offices. Bay and Netscape will jointly build Directory-Enabled Networking (DEN) technology into the service, an effort spear-headed by Microsoft and Cisco Systems.