The browser war is dead. The new battle is over control of Web-based email and groupware. Yesterday Netscape officially threw its hat into the ring with its repackaged Web client and server products in a bid to grab 50 per cent of the Intranet market.
It?s not the first time that Netscape has talked about setting its sights on the Intranet market - its rivals Lotus and Microsoft have been making moves in this area too. But yesterday at a glitzy conference attended by journalists and analysts via satellite linkup between London and New York, Netscape formally outlined its plans.
The strategy consists of support for Microsoft products and tools such as Microsoft Office and ActiveX - despite the recent bitter battles with Microsoft over browser and server software - plus a competitive pricing structure.
Netscape aims to build on its huge presence in the Web browser market - most market research figures put Netscape Navigator as owning 80 per cent of the market while Netscape itself calculates there are 45 million Navigator users worldwide. So there is no denying Netscape?s presence, but can it really blow established groupware players such as Lotus, Novell and Microsoft out of the water, and go beyond providing a pretty front end to legacy applications?
This is where its support of the Microsoft world is important. Netscape had previously declined to support ActiveX, Microsoft?s answer to Java, instead preferring to stay true to the Sun product. But Netscape realises that to be a serious groupware and email contender it must support commonly used office applications - and that means Microsoft. "Customers want to integrate a broad range of technologies seamlessly on their Intranets," admitted Marc Andreessen, Netscape?s senior vice president of technology. "It was obvious that Netscape had to embrace Microsoft, partly because Microsoft reciprocated by offering Java support. Netscape looked like the bad guys for not supporting ActiveX and also the Microsoft world is huge," said Ashim Pal, senior consultant at analysts Ovum.
Netscape?s Intranet line-up is based on client and server suites. The client suite, called Communicator, features the latest release of Navigator, version 4.0, HTML authoring software, email, group discussion software, a real-time conference application, scheduling facilities and a MIS management tool. The server family, called Suitespot, includes a server that enables encrypted information to be shared between workgroups. This is based on technology from Collabra, which Netscape acquired last year.
Despite the plethora of applications, few observers believe the range is either robust or rich enough for heavy groupware users. "Intranet servers do not have enough functionality for corporate users, such as data security and workflow tracking," said Michael Chapman Pincher, head of operations at the Lotus Notes User Group. The range could look less exciting when compared with Lotus? Domino Web development environment launched in the summer, which provides the full functionality of Notes on the Web.
Ovum?s Pal agreed that Netscape has a long way to go: "Collabra is similar to Notes but it?s a cut down version of it. There is no development environment nor is there a development community like that for Notes. Netscape has tried to merge Collabra into its Web products but so far the offering is at the low end of the groupware market. I don?t think it?s fair to compare this to Notes -- it?s ?groupwarelite?," he said.
"I think it is hard for Netscape to offer full functional groupware - it took Lotus and Microsoft 10 and six years respectively. It?s doubtful that Netscape will offer fully functional groupware in two years," Pal added.
Clive Longbottom, European programme director at analysts Meta Group, however, believes Netscape is in a strong position for a number of reasons. It has proved it is flexible in supporting Microsoft technology and it offers more functionality than Microsoft Exchange, which is provided as a foundation on top of which applications are added.
Price is another factor. Netscape was clever in that it stormed on to the market by giving away its browsers - however, people had to pay through the nose for its servers. It also found it difficult to compete when IBM drastically cut the price of Lotus Notes after it acquired Lotus Development. Now starting at $3,995 for a range of servers, Netscape is more competitively priced.
So overall what are the Netscape?s chances? "It will be a big fight but this is a positive move by Netscape," said Longbottom. He believes Netscape will be attractive to companies that believe in network computers, that have a highly distributed environment or that want a better discussion database. "Netscape will be taken by a lot of leading edge adopters because they know it will solve certain problems. It will be attractive to highly distributed international organisations that want to centralise their applications and provide access to them via Netscape," explained Longbottom.
Whether Netscape will win the Intranet war depends on how it is perceived in the market. Longbottom believes it is high time that it repositions itself in this way rather than relying on Web browsers and servers. But even when compared directly with its competitors it may offer a better engineered product. Its success depends on whether customers are willing to bet on a relatively new company and whether they will change their habit of buying Microsoft or Lotus at corporate level.
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