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New landscape for Netscape

Netscape has seen the future, and it's called the "extranet"--a strategy focusing on business-to-business communication.

If you ask Netscape Communications (NSCP), 1997 will be the year of the extranet.

Today, the company posted a white paper on its Web site that provides a rough picture of its next generation of Internet products, most of which are designed to take advantage of a growing trend among companies to use Internet software for secure business-to-business communications. The new "extranet" software will include updated versions of its Communicator, code-named Mercury, and SuiteSpot servers, code-named Apollo.

In addition to extranet software, Netscape plans to fill significant gaps in its product line with a new visual development tool called Palomar, a transaction server, and a workflow management server in an effort to catch up to rival offerings from Microsoft and Lotus Development. Netscape also will make a concerted effort to eclipse some of the basic interface features of operating systems, such as Windows 95 and the Mac OS, with a new "hypertree" that allows users to manage files on their hard disk and on networks through the Netscape browser.

In the white paper, penned by Netscape senior vice president of technology Marc Andreessen, the company suggests that extranets are the third most useful deployment of its Internet software, following the Internet and intranets. The paper stops short of announcing complete product details, instead providing a road map for the company's plans for the next 12 months.

Such road maps have become typical for the company. Last June, partly in an effort to distract attention from Microsoft's intranet efforts, Netscape first disclosed information about its Communicator and SuiteSpot 3.0 servers in a paper about intranets.

Andreessen said extranets not only consist of businesses over the Internet, but also over private leased-line networks. Netscape has tried to establish itself in the extranet arena with Actra Business Systems, a joint venture with GE Information Systems that sells Internet electronic data interchange solutions.

"Now, what is happening is large scale deployment of extranets," said Andreessen. "We are expanding our product line to suit that."

One of the new features of Netscape's Apollo servers will allow a company to easily create "demilitarized zones," pockets of data on an intranet that are accessible to the company's business partners while the rest of the intranet outside of the zone remains sealed off from outsiders.

Apollo will also include a personal agent called Compass that tracks and organizes information, such as email, Web sites, and discussion groups for users.

The point is to make things less complicated, says Andreessen. "When you start up your computer in the morning you have to check 47 Web sites to see what's going on, you have to check discussion groups, you want to offload some of that work onto the network."

The Mercury software will come with an local object store that will allow users to take applications with them on the road, a feature common to Lotus Notes. Andressen said it will have a universal in-box that allows users to receive voice mail, email, and faxes.

One of the most interesting features of Mercury, which Netscape is likely counting on to break Microsoft's hegemony of in desktop market, is the hypertree. Although Netscape has made some preliminary efforts to replace the interface of users' operating system through a Communicator feature called Constellation, it has stopped short in one important area--file management. Netscape believes that companies will be attracted to a single interface for managing files regardless of the OS. Still, it remains to be seen whether companies will actually abandon the desktop interfaces that are familiar to most users.

Finally, Netscape will enter a new arena with its Palomar development tool. The product will provide companies with a simple interface to create HTML, Java, and JavaScript applications that piggyback on Netscape's client and server software.

Mercury and Apollo will come out in beta in late 97, while Palomar is due out sometime in the second half of this year. All of the products will ship in 1998.

Netscape also intends to form an alliance with more than 35 other companies to establish a set of core standards, such as lightweight directory access protocol, sign objects, vCard, and X.509 certificates for extranets.