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Can Netscape cut it on the intranet?

Netscape would have the industry believe that its SuiteSpot is taking on Microsoft BackOffice and Lotus Notes. Analysts say the company can play in this market, but that it has a long road to hoe before it competes with these two heavyweights.

With the introduction of its SuiteSpot server application suite last week, Netscape would have the industry believe that is taking on Microsoft BackOffice and Lotus Notes. Analysts say the company can play in the server software market, but that it has a long row to hoe before it competes with these two heavyweights.

Best known for having given away millions of copies of its Navigator browser and helping spark the explosion of the World Wide Web, Netscape is now turning its attention to the market where there's money to be made: the intranet.

"The big story in '95 was that the intranet exploded," said Marc Andreessen, chief technical officer and co-founder of Netscape.

With last week's Internet Developer Conference in San Francisco as its bully pulpit, the company evangelized a new generation of aggressively priced Internet servers that will form the backbone for corporate-wide intranets. The company also revealed its $3,995 SuiteSpot package of six Internet server applications: the Enterprise Server Web server, LiveWire Pro management and development tool, Mail Server, News Server, Proxy Server for replicating Web pages at local servers, and the Catalog Server for creating indexes of distributed Web servers.

To reinforce its competitive message, Netscape officials said that SuiteSpot, with 100 user licenses, would cost $8,140 compared to $23,998 for BackOffice and $27,995 for Lotus Notes for the same number of clients.

But according to industry observers, Netscape software is not likely to compete directly with BackOffice, which includes a full network operating system, Windows NT Server, SNA Server for connecting to host-based networks, the Exchange messaging server, and the SQL Server relational database.

"There's a certain amount of comparing apples to oranges there," said Neil McManus, executive editor at Digital Media, an industry newsletter based in San Francisco. "Netscape is certainly trying to cross over into the Lotus groupware market. But Netscape will have to take its argument [of cheaper, open software] to IS people."

That means it will have to prove that its Web server software and commercial applications like the Istore electronic commerce application are as sophisticated and scalable as Microsoft's and Lotus' offerings, not to mention dozens of existing freeware servers.

Most important, McManus said, Netscape will have to provide the capability for remote users to update the central server and have the information replicated, or distributed, to all the users on the network. That is the core of the Notes model, but Netscape's Web servers allow information to flow only in one direction: from the Web server to browser clients.

Other analysts believe that Netscape's stab at the intranet market is more likely to enable a new breed of client applications than to affect the competitive picture on the existing server application front.

"I fully expect to see Java-written, [Microsoft] Office-like applications that are lightweight and different from traditional office apps. I can't wait to do my presentation in Netscape and dump PowerPoint," said Jerry Michalski, managing editor at the newsletter Release 1.0.