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Barksdale: the great Communicator?

One day after Microsoft's Bill Gates reassured Comdex attendees that the Windows PC is here to stay, James Barksdale, CEO of Netscape Communications, introduced a new technology that thumbs its nose at Windows and other operating systems.

LAS VEGAS, Nevada--One day after Microsoft's Bill Gates reassured Comdex attendees that the Windows PC is here to stay, James Barksdale, CEO of Netscape Communications (NSCP), introduced a new technology that thumbs its nose at Windows and other operating systems.

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Netscape's CEO James Barksdale on building for the Internet.
As previously reported by CNET, Barksdale offered a sneak peek of a new interface technology, code named Constellation, during his keynote address today. Constellation will be integrated into Netscape Communicator, the company's next release of its browser and other client software in the first half of 1997, Barksdale said.

Barksdale was emphatic that Netscape is not attempting to replace Windows with Constellation, since the program lacks the underlying device drivers found in a full-fledged operating system.

"It's not designed to be a Windows-killer," Barksdale said. "That would be foolishness."

However, Constellation does provide a graphical user interface that is meant to sit on top of Windows and other operating systems such Macintosh, Unix, and OS/2 Warp, providing a totally new desktop environment in which users can launch applications, manage files, and automatically receive Web information that is "pushed" or automatically sent to PCs.


The Netscape team faces the crowd, including Mike Homer (on left) and Barksdale.
Netscape hopes that the last feature-- receiving Web broadcasts on their desktops--will be one of the most compelling applications of Constellation since it could make accessing Net information easier for users. "Most people use the Web for finding things," Barksdale said. "There's an equal demand for having information find you."

Constellation could be a risky venture for Netscape since it is entering territory that is already familiar to OS companies such as Microsoft and Apple Computer. But Netscape is hoping that it can translate its experience building browser interfaces into a broader desktop effort.

"People are spending more and more of their days inside of Navigator," Mike McCue, director of client technology at Netscape, said today. "We wanted to pull many of the things that we are doing outside of Navigator into the Communicator."

Analysts said that Netscape's Constellation technology is aimed at a similar effort by Microsoft, dubbed the Active Desktop, to merge Internet Explorer and Windows interfaces into a single environment.

"Both initiatives are aimed at trying to move away from the tried-and-true folder metaphor of working with computers to more of an information-based metaphor where the information is not trapped and filed in icons," said Ross Rubin, group director of consumer Internet technologies for Jupiter Communications.

Rubin said Constellation might have a leg up on the Active Desktop if Netscape delivers it on multiple platforms. "It's based on HTML, and because it isn't as closely tied to the Windows desktop as the Microsoft initiative, it will be easier to take it cross-platform," Rubin said. "Microsoft has given mixed signals about whether it will move the Active Desktop cross-platform."

Other analysts believe that the push-publishing capabilities in Constellation and the Active Desktop, which will be available in Explorer 4.0, could herald a transformation in the way users experience the Net.

"'When push comes to shove' is my theme of the Internet in 1997," said Ira Machefsky, an analyst with the Giga Information Group. "It reduces the bandwidth required for communications and most importantly, conserves time.

"There's too much information, and we're not getting any more hours in the day," Machefsky said.

Photos by Don Winslow