Netscape's Navio, partners tackle consumer 'Net devices

Netscape has gathered together a collection of heavyweight partners to develop software for non-PC Internet devices.

Navio Communications, a new spinoff from Netscape, will develop software to run on a range of non-PC Internet access devices that will hit the market next year, executives say. The devices, including set-top boxes, telephones, personal digital assistants, game players and other networked appliances, will be targeted at consumers, while Netscape will remain focused on corporate intranets, Jim Clark, Netscape chairman and cofounder and chairman of Navio, says.

Netscape's partners in the venture include IBM, Oracle, NEC, Sony, Sega and Nintendo. Clark and other executives are refusing to disclose which are investors in Navio or to discuss other specifics. In tailoring Netscape Navigator to run on the devices, Navio will break the browser into components and either develop a separate operating system for specific devices or port the browser technology to other "real-time" operating systems, such as the Java OS, that run on the devices, says Marc Andreessen, senior vice-president of technology and cofounder of Netscape.

For instance, a pager needing as little as a half-megabyte of RAM would require fewer components of Navigator technology for its limited functionality than would a TV-style set-top box, says Wei Yen, Navio president and CEO.

Initially, Navio will rely on Netscape's server software to work with the client software, he says.

The code for the software will primarily be written using C++, with some written in assembly language for the efficiency to operate on devices that have available RAM ranging from 2Mb to 8Mb, says Yen. Navio will increasingly write code in the Java language, according to Andreessen.

"We will provide an operating system, not for the PC, that can provide an equivalent of the desktop operating system and have the ability to have channels embedded" in the software that will stream information to the user, Andreessen says. In contrast with today's model of the Internet, in which users chase down the information they want from a particular site, a new channels model will broadcast information to the user, he says. It will "take areas of the screen on the client device and have the server updating it", he says.

Andreessen estimates that by the year 2000, as many as 500 million non-PC-based Internet devices will be in operation. "As developing countries modernise and industrialise, these devices offer a huge opportunity to quickly build an infrastructure," he says.

"The Internet will be the electricity to the consumer device in the next century," says Yen.

Microsoft and other companies probably won't be far behind Netscape in aggressively pushing into the Internet device arena, according to Gary Schultz, principal analyst at Multimedia Research Group in Sunnyvale, California. "We think there will be a market for Internet applications, and they won't be PC-based," he says. "The question I still have is, how will they attract the developers and will the developers know that the tools they'll be using will be cross-platform?"

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