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Netscape shoots for the stars

Netscape previews a significant upgrade to its browser interface, including the debut of a new feature code-named Constellation.

LAS VEGAS, Nevada--Netscape Communications (NSCP) today previewed a new feature code-named Constellation that will let an upcoming release of its browser push or broadcast Web information to users' desktops.

Constellation will allow publishers to "push" or automatically send information such as sports statistics and news headlines directly to a user's desktop, rather than requiring users to actually visit a Web site.

Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale's did the honors today during his Comdex keynote.

The company also announced partnerships with Marimba and PointCast that will allow their existing information services--both of which also send Net broadcasts--to work with the next version of Netscape's browser.

The new features are expected to show up in the first quarter of 1997 as part of a suite of client software called Netscape Communicator, formerly code-named Galileo. Communicator is designed to offer improved collaboration and messaging features aimed directly at the corporate intranet market.

The new push technology being shown this week is part of Netscape's answer to Internet Explorer 4.0, a forthcoming upgrade to Microsoft's Web browser that will also feature push technology. Both technologies could substantially alter the manner in which users interact with information on their PCs, as well as open up new publishing schemes for Web sites that want to broadcast data to user desktops.

Last August, Netscape's senior vice president of technology, Marc Andreessen, described the version of Navigator that was previewed this week.

"You'll have regions of the desktop that you can drag and drop and resize and push information out to," he said. "Instead of thinking about Web pages, people are going to start thinking about channels. You're going to be running a tuner instead of a browser."

PointCast has received considerable attention for this style of Web publishing, but Netscape and Microsoft are aiming to incorporate "push" capabilities directly into browsers, rather than requiring a separate program. Unlike PointCast, Netscape's Constellation solution will not require a special server, but instead will receive broadcasts from standard Web servers.

PointCast's advantage is that it has already built up a broad array of partnerships with information providers, including CMP and Reuters, all of whom offer "channels" or categories of information that broadcast on its software. Netscape is hoping to take advantage of these partnerships by cutting a deal with PointCast so that Communicator users will be able to tune into any PointCast channel.

Similarly, the Constellation feature will let users receive broadcasts through Marimba's Castanet server. Marimba, another company trying to establish itself in the push marketplace, offers its own Java-based server and client for receiving software and information.

The deals are also big wins for PointCast and especially Marimba, which has far fewer partnerships, because the link to the biggest browser market greatly expands the audiences for their content.

Andreessen has said that Netscape's new browser features would also allow users to view files on their local hard disks as though they were scanning a series of Web pages, a feature that could erase the line between surfing the global Net and managing local files and launching applications.

Internet Explorer 4.0 will also allow users to view hard disk information. But here again, while Microsoft concentrates on Windows 95 and Windows NT, Netscape thinks its support for multiple platforms will be a key advantage