Netscape remakes itself yet again

Is Netscape an electronic-commerce company? Or is it an Internet software company? Or is it a portal company? Yes. Netscape wants to be all those things. But in its latest exercise in self-definition -- with the "Internet economy" as a focus -- the Silicon Valley company is trying to create a unifying theme from some fairly disparate notions.

Redefinition isn't new for Netscape, the company that defined the notion of Internet time.

Browsers were never the main business plan, but for a time, Netscape talked bravely that the browser could be a computing platform: just add Java and plug-ins, and the browser would be your desktop. By supporting many different operating systems, Netscape hoped ubiquity would make the underlying operating system less relevant.

We all know what happened. Microsoft dipped into its bottomless pockets, fashioned its own excellent browser and gave it away. Then it hijacked client-side Java, adding Windows-specific technologies to ruin whatever possibility might exist for cross-platform compatibility.

Both matters are in court, but Netscape correctly isn't depending on the legal system for help.

Netscape kept morphing. It kept improving its server products, which sold well. Then it declared itself an intranet company that sells products designed to help enterprises use Internet technologies to improve communications internally as well as externally.

Next, Netscape bought Collabra from Eric Hahn and declared it was also a groupware company that would compete against Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange and Novell GroupWise. That had the principal effect of turning Lotus's parent IBM, once a firm ally, into at least a partial enemy. Hahn left Netscape a few weeks ago, and the groupware strategy has receded.

Then Netscape announced that the extranet was the wave of the future: using Internet technologies to seamlessly communicate and do business with other enterprises and customers. Throughout this evolution, Netscape kept upgrading its server software and the rest of its enterprise-level product line.

Meanwhile, as browser revenue collapsed, Netscape tried something truly brave: it made public the source code for the Navigator browser, hoping that the open-source-code community would be quicker to add improvements than Netscape could itself.

How that grand experiment will turn out is anyone's guess, but Navigator's market share continues to drop, with Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer at rough parity today in quality and share.

Netscape's latest mantra is the 'net economy, and the company claims that its disparate product lines all fit together nicely. Here's the theory:

Servers and other enterprise software will remain critically important, the building blocks for enterprises that want to participate in the 'net economy. So will NetCenter, the company's stab at the Web portal and business community marketplace, capitalising on the fact that Netscape has millions of visitors daily to its Web site. (Keeping browser market share becomes more essential for the portal to succeed.) It all adds up to convergence on electronic commerce, Netscape says.

I still don't quite grasp how all the parts fit together, but Netscape has won some major converts to its enterprise and electronic-commerce notions, among them Citibank and Ford. Both have embarked on major projects using Netscape software and services. And NetCenter is attracting some attention -- and money -- as a major portal.

Watching Netscape is always fascinating, in part because you never can tell what's next. Pauline never had as many perils as this agile but perpetually under-the-gun Internet company. Then again, Pauline didn't have to contend with Microsoft or Internet time, either.

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Dan Gillmor

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