Netscape ups ante in bid to become consumer end-site on Web

No longer content to let its browser drive fleeting traffic to its Netcenter home page, Netscape Communications is padding the nest with free e-mail from USA.NET and a co-branded search service to protect and build on its millions of daily Web visits. Thanks largely to its 70-million-strong installed base of client browser software -- Navigator and Communicator -- Netscape's home page has been among the most visited on the Web for several years.

No longer content to let its browser drive fleeting traffic to its Netcenter home page, Netscape Communications is padding the nest with free e-mail from USA.NET and a co-branded search service to protect and build on its millions of daily Web visits.

Thanks largely to its 70-million-strong installed base of client browser software -- Navigator and Communicator -- Netscape's home page has been among the most visited on the Web for several years. The hits come because many Navigator users use Netscape-linked buttons on the browser interface or leave Netscape as the default home page.

But until now, Netscape has pointed many of those 24 million monthly visitors quickly away to such partner sites as Yahoo, Excite, and other popular search and portal destinations. Netscape now wants to keep the hits that its site receives, and attract even more, by offering many of the same services that browser users leave Netcenter for.

Netscape, in effect, is no longer happy to be a middleman on the Web. The important end goal for Netscape is to create as much revenue from page impressions and coincident banner advertisements as possible. And free e-mail, it turns out, generates scads of page hits as users return frequently to send and receive messages.

On Wednesday, the company detailed a series of services and revamping of the interface on its Netcenter consumer portal site to appear in a series of home page upgrades during the next 60 days.

Before July, a new service, Netscape WebMail by USA.NET, will offer a free, Web-based e-mail account to any Netcenter visitor, much in the same way as other free services, such as Microsoft's Hotmail and Yahoo.

WebMail will use Netscape's own technology for its Netcenter Member Directory, and other facets of Netcenter, but the e-mail service will be built on Colorado Springs, Colo.-based USA.NET's NetAddress technology. This despite the fact that Netscape offers a standards-based e-mail server and is expected to announce a highly scaling e-mail server upgrade with its Apollo launch in coming months.

Netscape is also negotiating with search sites to provide a Netscape-branded search facility within the cyber-confines of Netcenter, said Mike Homer, executive vice president and general manager of Netscape's Web site division.

"It will be an Internet-branded search [engine] to make it the search of choice for Netscape users. The partner could get some branding, but it will remain primarily a Netscape branded service," Homer said in a teleconference with reporters.

Moreover, Netscape also plans in coming weeks to more tightly couple its browser interface with its Netcenter offerings. Netcenter services will still be usable by rival Microsoft Internet Explorer users, but the access to the services may be easier for Navigator users, Homer said.

"Now that we give the browser away for free, we'll use it to bring users back to Netcenter," Homer said. "Now that we have all the services that the other portal sites do, all the pieces are in place. We're sure we'll generate a tremendous amount of traffic between our search engine and the client integration. We believe that by integrating [the client] with Netcenter that we will win."

Specifically, when the new Netcenter with WebMail launches, it will include:

--a new personalization service;

--a simplified opening page;

--e-mail notification on users' personal pages; and

--a summary inbox to view messages.

These e-mail services will augment Netscape's current In-Box Direct service, which automates personalised links to specific outside Web content services.

Netscape said it sought the partnership with USA.NET because of the level of service the company provides to e-mail users. Netscape's new service will offer address book synchronization; save draft; spell check; message search; global vacation auto-response; and some filtering capabilities. Additional services will include virus scanning; foreign language translation; integrated message forwarding to e-mail, fax, and pager; mail collection from multiple e-mail accounts; and POP3 mailboxes for offline management, Netscape said.

Netscape Communications Corp. is at http://home.netscape.com. USA.NET Inc. is at http://www.netaddress.com.

(Dana Gardner is an editor at large for InfoWorld.)

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