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Netscape, MS rivalry hits media

In pursuing push technologies, Microsoft and Netscape are extending their competitive strategies to media.

Microsoft (MSFT) and Netscape Communications (NSCP) are well schooled in the art of luring software developers to build applications based on their platforms. Now, as the companies prepare to launch their respective push technology initiatives, they're doing the same thing with media companies.

Netscape executives think they may have a leg up on Microsoft when it comes to attracting broadcasters, cable networks, and magazine publishers to its Netcaster push software. That's because Microsoft's own growing fleet of media holdings--including its MSNBC joint cable venture with NBC and the Sidewalk online city guides--could threaten the very media companies that Microsoft wants to feature on the Active Desktop, the push technology component of Internet Explorer 4.0.

Indeed, some media companies such as ABC may find it difficult to stomach a partnership with Microsoft. But it remains unclear whether the company's media efforts will scare off potential partners.

Much like network broadcasters, Netscape and Microsoft are relying on compelling content to encourage people to tune in to using their software--or drop out, as the case may be. It's not clear whether channels developed for Explorer 4.0 and Netcaster, a feature of Communicator, will work equally well with both initiatives so that content providers would have to develop only one technology.

Netscape executives made their case against Microsoft yesterday at the official debut of Netcaster. Marc Andreessen, senior vice president of technology at Netscape, claimed that media companies perceive Microsoft as a "severe competitive threat" because of its media holdings. Netscape says that it has no media ambitions of its own and that it will therefore be able to attract more companies to its push solution.

"It's very difficult for an ABC to work at a high strategic level with Microsoft because of MSNBC," Jennifer Bailey, vice president of electronic marketing at Netscape, said at the Netcaster debut.

ABC's forthcoming ABC News.com site, which it is jointly producing with Starwave, will be the premier news channel included with Netcaster. ABC is not likely to receive the same treatment on the Active Desktop since Microsoft intends to prominently feature news headlines from MSNBC.

Still, Tom Phillips, president of the ABC News/Starwave joint venture, suggested that ABC News.com would use the Active Desktop technology in addition to Netcaster, even if it isn't going to be a high-profile channel.

"This medium is turning into a TV metaphor where everybody is producing shows for everyone else's network," Phillips said.

Microsoft executives admitted that its MSNBC operation might preclude Microsoft from partnering with another broadcaster. But the company said it is not having any difficulty drawing other content providers to Active Desktop.

"In the case of ABC, [Netscape] is correct. You can't partner with more than one broadcaster," said Will Poole, senior director of business development at Microsoft. "In the case of all other content, they are pretty sorely wrong. We have absolutely no problem attracting premier content to our platform."

"We work with plenty of companies that compete with our content division," Poole said. "The Wall Street Journal is a good example. If you look at the media world, it is very different from the computer world in terms of alliances with competitors."

Microsoft intends to announce an "aggressive" array of partnerships with content providers in the future, Poole said.

Some analysts expect that most media companies will develop channels for both Microsoft's and Netscape's technologies to ensure the broadest possible audiences.

"I would tell content providers to do both [Active Desktop and Netcaster]," said John Robb, an independent Internet analyst. "Try and compete with Microsoft on its home turf..."