Netscape Communications has demonstrated a new technology today called Aurora that lets users browse files on a hard drive and access information in databases using Netscape Communicator as a client.
The move is a direct response to Microsoft's efforts to integrate its Internet Explorer 4.0 browser into the Windows 98 operating system, letting users access files, such as Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and email messages, through a browser interface, says CEO Jim Barksdale.
"Those (Microsoft Active Desktop applications) are not killer, overwhelming, unduplicatable features and functions," Barksdale says. Netscape is proving with Aurora that it can offer the same sort of integration between browser and operating system, but not limit the implementation to Windows 98, he says. Windows 98's Active Desktop features use Web navigation methods and HTML presentations to manage files on multiple sources locally and remotely.
Aurora will be based on a standard for describing diverse sets of information called the Resource Description Framework (RDF). RDF is a Web site lay-out language technology that organises, describes and displays information from the Internet, intranets, LANs, legacy databases and PC hard drives into one universally recognisable format, according to Netscape. Aurora will use RDF to let users access files on a desktop or information on a database via the Communicator interface - a similar move to what Microsoft is trying to do with the Active Desktop, Barksdale says.
Aurora, which will become part of the Communicator browser and groupware package, will be integrated closely with several operating systems, Barksdale says. The first operating systems Aurora will support are Windows 95, Windows 3.1 and the soon-to-be released Windows 98, he says. However, future versions of Aurora will be developed for a variety of Unix platforms and the Mac OS.
It is still unclear how much participation will be needed from database vendors and application developers to make Aurora work with their products, according to Barksdale. There is a way to work with Netscape-supported databases to do some of the RDF formatting required from Netscape already. However, most database and application vendors have it in their best interest to make products compatible with RDF - which Netscape is supporting as a new standard - if they want to give users data access via a browser interface, Barksdale says.
Users have been asking to be able to use Communicator to access legacy files, directories, security information and push channels, Barksdale says. "This is an effort to answer these questions."
There has been little customer demand to access files on the hard drive, such as Microsoft Office documents, using the Netscape browser, Barksdale says. While Netscape is building this hard-drive browsing capability into Aurora in case some users want it, it won't be the most important function. "If people find that to be helpful, fine."
Barksdale calls Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 "cumbersome and confusing" to use, adding that its integration with Windows 98 creates a bloated application that users may not want. "I have a house and I have a boat, but that doesn't mean I want a houseboat."
Aurora will differ from Active Desktop because the focus will be on letting users integrate Communicator with their operating system of choice - but users won't be forced to do so, Barksdale said. In much the same way that users can opt to use the NetCaster component, Aurora will be a choice, he says. Netscape's theory is that browsers will become the "common platform" and "the operating system will become plug-ins to that platform," Barksdale says. Aurora is a first step in that direction.
Netscape will launch Aurora as part of Communicator for Windows 98 at the same time that Windows 98 comes out. However, specific release dates for the product on various platforms have not yet been announced.