Netcaster: Netscape's push component shoved into limelight

In a race with Microsoft to define and dominate the rapidly emerging push technology market, Netscape has officially announced Netcaster, the push component formerly known as Constellation, which will ship the the commercial versions of Communicator later in the year. Time Warner, HotWired and CNN are on board - and the beta will be posted within 30 days.

In a race with Microsoft to define and dominate the rapidly emerging push technology market, Netscape has officially announced Netcaster, a push component to be built into its US$59 Communicator Web client and $79 Communicator Pro when the commercial versions ship later this quarter.

Formerly code-named Constellation, Netcaster will be available for testing as part of the fourth Communicator beta release within 30 days, according to Netscape officials. That's ahead of the company's previous plans to deliver a beta version of Netcaster by early summer, the officials say.

Shipping a software product early is "something, to the best of my knowledge, we've not done before ... and it may never have been done before," said Marc Andreessen, Netscape's co-founder and vice president of technology, at the unveiling event.

It appears, however, that Netcaster provides push capabilities but does not deliver a number of features and functions that were described last November when Netscape introduced Constellation as a full user interface for PCs.

Netscape's announcement here, however, was not just about the pending delivery of a new software product. The introduction marks a new level of cooperation and symbiosis between software developers and the media companies that produce the rich content that will come to define the World Wide Web.

The arrival of Netcaster significantly ups the ante for seducing users to buy and deploy software products by offering a better way to access specialized content from brand-name publishers. Netcaster will be joined in Communicator by a cohort, Webtop, which will allow users to customize desktops based on "channels" of content and applications.

What this means is that, according to Netscape, users can decide which infomation they want and need - be it from within their employer or from across the Web - and then set up their desktops to highlight and automatically receive that specialised content. The content can also appear in the form of an application or access to a database. The users will still be able to conduct Web searches and establish and use bookmarks to visit Web sites or intranet-based HTML pages.

The ability for Netscape users to pick and choose channels of content that will arrive automatically to their desktops puts added pressure on Microsoft to belly-up to the content table with its own seductive mix of product and media.

According to Microsoft, the company plans to meet that challenge. The Channel Definition Format (CDF) was announced last month as an open industry standard for optimising the broadcast of information over the Internet. Netscape said it is not supporting CDF because it is unnecessary.

Microsoft is just beginning its beta cycles for Explorer 4.0, which has been beset by delays due to security issues. If Netscape delivers Communicator and Netcaster before July as promised, it is likely to beat Microsoft to market with a commercial version of a push-capable Web client.

Analysts said the different approaches to content distribution amounts to another step in the heated battle over control of the desktop between Microsoft and Netscape.

"This is the escalation of the browser wars," said James Staten, analyst at Dataquest. "Microsoft says it is the desktop. Netscape says it wants to liberate the desktop. The real question is, who is going to customise your desktop, Microsoft or Netscape?"

At this time, Netscape appears to have the lead, at least insofar as providing a push channel paradigm that's easy for content providers to use. Netscape says that a Web site publisher can convert their server into a broascaster of content through its channels in anywhere from 20 minutes to three days.

Netscape officials were joined on the stage here Tuesday by representatives of some of the world's largest media companies. They demonstrated Netcaster by having it deliver pages of their multimedia content, including video and sound clips.

The companies - ranging from traditional powerhouses Time-Warner and Disney/ABC to Web content providers Infoseek and HotWired - said they are using Netscape technology to turn their Web sites into Netcaster broadcasters. Some 20 publishers, including ABCNEWS.com, CNN, and CBS Sportsline, announced that they will be Netcaster content providers.

InfoWorld Electric will be among the media outlets represented on Netcaster due to a partnering relationship with International Data Corp., InfoWorld's parent company. IDG also owns a minority stake in Netscape.

Content providers see a new landscape evolving from the Netcaster technology.

"This changes the way we publish," says Jeff Veen of the Web magazine HotWired. "We can do more immersive content that a user can explore into."

Others felt that this could signify the segmentation of the World Wide Web into high-end and low-end content providers, rather than the relatively level playing field of today. High-end content providers, like HotWired, are increasing their exposure through agreements like this, leaving smaller sites an uphill battle in competing for visibility, according to Veen.

One site, CNNfn, part of the Time-Warner media conglomerate, showed Tuesday how financial news stories, a "super ticker" of stock quotes, and other business information can be "pushed" to users with Netscape Communicator loaded on their PCs.

"It allows us to bring push to a mass audience," said Rich Zahradnik, executive producer of CNNfn, based in New York. He said that his webmasters took about two days to use the Netscape products to allow their Web site to be a Netcaster broadcaster.

An essential ingredient to the Netscaster system is the Castanent tuner and broadcast vehicle from Marimba Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif. Netscape will be including a Castanet tuner into each new copy of Communicator when it ships, says Kim Polese, CEO of Marimba.

Netscape will offer IS managers a two-tiered approach to implementing channels. The first tier uses a configuration file to pull and cache pages from existing Web sites.

The second tier makes use of Marimba's Castanet tuner software, which is built into Netcaster. IS managers and content providers can user Castanet servers to send Java applications and content to the Netcaster desktops.

Tuesday's Netcaster announcement also included offline use so that updated information is delivered in the background and stored on a hard drive and Channel Finder, a guide that lets users subscribe to Web channels. It will come with default channels and either 10 enterprise channels or 10 channels for individuals. IS managers can lock down the channels available in the Channel Finder to include company-specific content.

Whether the new era of content pushing will separate Microsoft and Netscape as they provide client and server publishing solutions remains a question. Mike Homer, Netscape vice president of marketing, goes so far as to suggest that Microsoft may adopt the Netcaster paradigm in its own products.

That seems unlikely. In a emailing to the press on Monday, Microsoft said that, "With its announcements, Netscape joins dozens of vendors who provide flat, monolithic, page-based push technologies ... 40 vendors have joined with Microsoft to make webcasting a richer, standards-based communications medium."

Both sides claim that they are standards-based and possess the best content. The area is considered strategically important by both vendors because it is seen as a means to let IS departments and Web content creators deliver company information, news, and advertisements to users who are too busy or disinclined to go Web surfing on their own. When combined with browsers, push technology holds out the promise of redefining what users see on and how they interact with their computer's interface.

CNNfn's Zahradnik doesn't think he's picked sides by becoming a Netcaster channel. He expects that users will access his content through traditional browsers and he will work with Microsoft to be part of its push technology. "We'll be there on the Microsoft ActiveDesktop, too," he says.

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