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Netscape relaunches portal to attract daytime users

The America Online subsidiary unveils a redesign of its Netcenter Web portal in an effort to target consumers who access the Internet at work.

America Online subsidiary Netscape Communications today unveiled a redesign of its Netcenter Web portal in an effort to target consumers who access the Internet at work.

As previously reported, Netscape has toyed with new ideas for giving Netcenter a refurbished image to appeal to a market it calls the "business professional."

With the new look, the site adds a "today's features" section that updates daily with top news headlines. The site also features two content tabs: one labeled "business" for stock quotes and small business links, and one labeled "leisure" for local events, TV listings and sports headlines.

The redesign is one of the first transformations to appear on Netcenter since AOL's $9 billion acquisition of the company closed in March. AOL has stated in the past that it wants to turn Netscape into its primary service for attracting Net users at work, since users of the AOL proprietary service generally log on during prime-time hours in the evening.

AOL is looking into a number of strategies for Netscape, including the creation of a Netscape-branded online service for U.S. users; it also is considering using its technology in Internet appliances.

Although the company declined to comment specifically on these ideas, Netscape plans to announce new initiatives to more closely integrate Netcenter's content into newer versions of its Communicator browser, which has been delayed another two months. The delays may be costly, as results from recent studies show Microsoft's Internet Explorer gaining in popularity among business users.

"We will be prepared after the first of the year on how Netcenter and Netscape the browser will be deployed into the marketplace more aggressively than ever before," said Jim Martin, Netcenter's general manager, who joined AOL in June. Martin replaced former head Mike Homer, who is on sabbatical.

According to Martin, marketing Netcenter to business users is further indicative of AOL's attempts to brand its services to specific audiences with specific preferences. For example, AOL has said that its CompuServe online service targets Internet users who want discounted subscriptions. AOL also has said its ICQ instant messaging services appeals to a younger, more international crowd.

"With Netscape, you have a daytime business professional," Martin said. "There's nothing wrong with finding a way to parse an audience and then serve a product to them. This will prevent us from stepping on AOL's toes."

Marketing a service to business users is not a novel strategy for AOL. The online giant in the past has tried marketing CompuServe as a service for "busy professionals" and as a "premium" brand for higher-income users. But because of CompuServe's stagnant growth numbers and the growing popularity of Internet service provider discount deals, AOL has tweaked the service's image into a "value" brand by offering it with PC rebate deals.

For Martin, the announcement breaks a silence from his division since he took charge. Netcenter has not come out with any major product releases or strategic announcements since his appointment--mainly because of his focus on figuring out ways to program to the Netcenter audience, Martin said.

He has his work cut out for him. Despite having AOL's seemingly limitless resources behind him, Martin has a list of portal veterans such as Yahoo, Excite and Lycos to contend with. These sites have attracted millions of daily visitors and a significant chunk of online advertising dollars.

What cuts Netcenter out from the rest of the portal pack? Martin says it takes some publishing tricks learned from years of running magazines such as MacWorld for International Data Group.

"What was missing [from Netcenter] was the cover, the cut lines, the attitude and the style of the publication," Martin said. "We added the cover to what we hope will be a much more interesting place for people to be."

But some analysts question whether these changes will increase Netcenter's chances against portal veterans.

"The question becomes, what's the unique differentiated value that Netcenter has over one of those [other portals]?" said Clay Ryder, chief analyst at market research firm Zona Research. "Is the daytime user necessarily going to be as swayed by packaging, or is it going to be swayed by price and usability and ease of access?"

Other analysts, such as Dan O'Brien of market research firm Forrester Research, took a more critical view of the launch. In O'Brien's opinion, the redesign does not satisfy the needs of the business user or of the consumer, but "straddles" these two markets instead of committing to one.

Furthermore, O'Brien suggested that Netscape should either redirect users to AOL.com or commit to the business user by piggybacking on its partnership with Sun Microsystems and offering a product for its Intranet market.

"Horoscopes and screensavers are distractions," O'Brien wrote in an analyst note on Forrester's Web site. "A true concentration on business professionals would promote calendaring, email forwarding and file-storage services; news and research about occupations and industries; and an intuitive, uncluttered interface."