Netscape eyes messaging heavyweights

Netscape has used its developer conference in New York to announce a raft of intranet products.

Netscape sees its new groupware and email package, announced yesterday at the company's developer conference in New York, competing head-to-head with Lotus Notes and Microsoft Back Office, company officials say.

But as client-server messaging and groupware systems like Notes open up to the Web, analysts say, corporate users must decide whether Netscape can give them a good enough reason to switch to its forthcoming Communicator email-groupware-browsing client and its upgraded SuiteSpot server family.

"If everybody's settling on Internet standards, what's going to make me move off what I am on now?" says Michael Gotta, senior research analyst for workgroup computing strategies at Stamford, Connecticut-based Meta Group. "There's got to be value."

Central to the intranet strategy Netscape has unveiled is the Communicator, a new beefed-up Web client that goes "beyond the browser ... to a whole new dimension in communication and collaboration," says Jim Barksdale, Netscape's president and CEO.

Communicator, priced at US$49 and due out in the first quarter of next year, is comprised of Navigator 4.0, the latest version of Netscape's browser that features user interface enhancements, as well as support for automatic positioning of images, and layering of images; Composer, a Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) authoring tool; Messenger, an electronic mail system for sending HTML-based messages; Collabra, software for setting up discussion groups; and Conference, real-time audio and data conferencing software. The Communicator Professional Edition, priced at US$79 and also due out in the first quarter, includes Calendar, a group scheduling package, and AutoAdmin, a centralised user management package for IS managers.

Communicator will be sold as a package, says Bob Lisbonne, vice-president of client product marketing at Netscape. Users can download pieces of it -- for example, just Navigator, Composer and Messenger, if they do not have a use for Conference -- but they would still pay the full US$49 price, Lisbonne says.

On the server side, Netscape has announced SuiteSpot 3.0, the latest version of its Internet-standards based server suite. New and updated servers include Enterprise Server 3.0, the latest version of Netscape's publishing and document management server; new features include intelligent agents, which notify users of when documents have been updated. Collabra Server 3.0 is a discussion server based on CollabraShare technology acquired from Collabra Software Inc., which has been modified to use the Internet standard Network News Transfer Protocol, officials say.

Calendar Server 1.0, Netscape's new enterprise scheduling server, is based on the vCalendar protocol, and will also support forthcoming Internet calendaring specifications from the Internet Engineering Task Force, officials say.

Media Server 1.0, Netscape's new streaming audio server, features automatic bandwidth detection, and is based on the proposed Real Time Streaming Protocol standard, developed by Netscape and Progressive Networks. Messaging Server 3.0 is an update of Netscape's Internet- standards based email system, and Proxy Server 2.5 is an update of its replication and filtering server, officials say.

SuiteSpot servers will be priced at US$995 each, officials say. Customers can buy five of the nine servers plus Netscape's LiveWire Pro development environment for $US3995.

Netscape has also announced plans to improve its integration with Microsoft's platforms and technologies. Among Netscape's plans is improving its existing support for Microsoft's OLE and Component Object Model (COM) technologies, integrating its client with ActiveX on Windows 95 and Windows NT desktops, and integrating OLE/COM/ActiveX objects with its LiveConnect Internet object bus, officials say.

Netscape also plans to improve integration with Microsoft Office, including the ability to index and search Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint documents from its Catalog and Enterprise Servers, and to improve its integration with Windows NT services and BackOffice.

"Our whole idea is to take existing investments customers have made and bridge seamlessley with things they want to do," says Marc Andreessen, senior vice-president of technology at Netscape. "It lowers the barrier for people to easily integrate and rollout this technology."

Aiming for its competitors' groupware and email customers, Netscape plans to release migration tools for Lotus' CC:Mail, Microsoft Mail and Eudora systems by the end of this year, and for Notes and Exchange next year, says Srivats Sampath, vice-president of servers, applications and tools marketing at Netscape.

The Communicator's and SuiteSpot's completeness, low cost, and ease of use will appeal to corporate customers, especially if they do not already have a groupware system in place, says Nina Lytton, president of Open Systems Advisors, a Boston-based consultancy. Even with migration tools, an established Notes or Exchange shop is not likely to toss out existing applications overnight, Lytton says. But they could use Netscape's products to build new applications for business procedures that have yet to be automated, she says.

"It is in some ways easier for people to get going with Collabra than it is with Notes," Lytton says.

Netscape does not seem to be giving a lot of attention to mobile clients, giving Notes a boost in organisations that have lots of mobile users, says Eric Brown, analyst at Forrester Research. Notes' multiprotocol support also gives it an edge in companies that have yet to standardize on TCP/IP, although that gap should close within the next year or so as intranets become more common, Brown says.

"If a company has already paved their intranet, Netscape looks pretty competitive," Brown says. "But not all companies have put TCP/IP everywhere."

Netscape is on the World Wide Web at http://www.netscape.com.

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