Netscape has begun issuing beta versions of Communicator ? the enhanced upgrade of Navigator which throws in groupware and Web design components alongside the much-improved browser and email clients. But this Communicator is failing to get its message across to those who use it.
The beta copy Internet Dealer tested is highly unstable, and the redesigns of the browser and mail clients seem to have been mainly concerned with adopting a lot of the user-friendly features that Microsoft?s Internet Explorer has already (MSIE) introduced.
Although it?s not the final shipping product, Communicator is still a solid enough threat for its detractors to launch vociferous attacks on it, painting it as an untried and untested technology. They imply that corporates would be wasting their money even contemplating using it as a basis for their intranet strategies.
?It?s a simplistic, immature product ? very flaky at the moment ? and it won?t address the groupware needs of our customers,? says Jeremy Gittins, Microsoft Internet platform marketing manager. ?Netscape is trying to move from being a browser company to being a groupware firm, but it?s not proving to be that easy for them.
?We?ve got a strong set of products by comparison ? IE, Net Meeting and Exchange with Outlook ? that integrate in Windows. You need a lot of resources to design and deliver products like that, and Netscape don?t have the track record our customers would want.?
Such a blistering attack signals that this is a high-stakes political game ? the language and ideas will be familiar to anyone attuned to British politics at the moment. One line of argument goes: why settle for an unknown commodity that could leave you in tears (Netscape/New Labour), when you can go on being governed by an established player that?s got your best interests at heart (Microsoft/the Tories)?
The message is a similar one at Lotus, where the Notes team is talking up Domino as the answer to every corporate?s Internet or intranet requirements. Internet product manager Victor Aberdeen says the Notes/Domino platform gives corporate users an application environment that is up and running within two to three days. It also has pedigree.
He says: ?I think people will start asking what?s under the hood with Netscape. There could be some unseen problems, with a lot of pain coming later. On any Web server you can create a file system that?s useful when it?s small. As soon as you get to more than two people managing that server, you get problems. In Domino, all the content and database is in an object store, and many people can manage that without problems.?
Aberdeen thinks that corporates will eventually settle for products that have ?years of functionality? behind them. They won?t settle for young upstarts.
That Netscape has managed to stir up such strong emotions suggests the company?s gameplan is winning converts. It continues to ignore all the flack from its opponents and hammers away at popularising the ?intranet market opportunity?, pulling developers and corporate resellers away from the proprietary Microsoft, Lotus and Novell orbits.
Netscape talks up the coming intranet market explosion (see graph) with the promise of big rewards. But it adds the proviso that companies will only reap those rewards if they are not hoodwinked by proprietary systems. Like New Labour, Netscape is trying to get corporates to ask themselves if their current suppliers are serving the best interests of the business community, or whether they?re out simply to promote their own selfish agendas.
Open systems remains one of Netscape?s strongest cards. Eric Broussard, European marketing manager, explains: ?In the past, companies have been able to select the operating systems, tools and software applications they thought most appropriate to their organisations, because they had enclosed information systems. Proprietary technologies were fine, and email was a segmented market.
?Now, because of the development of intranets and extranets, it is important that they standardise tools with customers and partners so people can communicate inside and outside organisations. An open standard is now key.?
In other words, a commitment to the widest range of platforms should be the basis of any groupware and email infrastructure within an organisation. And Netscape?s commitment to a wide range of operating systems for its Communicator client ? Microsoft does not intend to support Windows 3.1 and Warp OS/2 versions of Internet Explorer, and the IE Unix client is still awaited ? gives it the best claim on the title.
At least, at this blueprint stage it does. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. As Gittins observes: ?Netscape have so far proved themselves very good at self-promotion and PR, but they haven?t been so hot with delivery.? Yet implicit in this statement is a tacit assumption that if Netscape delivers a Communicator product that works, the company could stand to gain a great deal.
Netscape president and CEO Jim Barksdale went as far as to say that he thinks he?s found the secret to making money on the Net, and that products like Communicator will be ?something we can build a business around by making intranets pay-off for customers?.
Communicator, he says, is a cost-effective approach that will link the past with the future. ?It will work on existing networks and reach existing desktops, while enabling customers to unify those environments into a seamless user, developer, and administrator experience.
?For the first time, a company will be able to affordably provide employees with email and groupware that use the functionality of the Web to get work done more efficiently.?
The message behind Communicator ? that it provides groupware and email benefits at a fraction of the price of its competitors ? is, of course hotly disputed. Nevertheless, the cost of installation issue underlines everything Netscape says these days, and it?s a language corporates speak.
Barksdale talks increasingly about extranets, which he defines as the systems firms want to put on the other side of the firewall from the intranet. Netscape wants corporates to think about building applications that work on both sides of the firewall, maybe doing different things but essentially the same ? a possibility that would cut back the cost of development. Those costs have always been a big issue with corporates. So it?s not surprising that on the Netscape Web site two recent developments address this issue: Appfoundry and the Airius Virtual Intranet site.
The Appfoundry contains the source code of about 20 different reusable intranet applications developed in conjunction with Netscape partners. These are small apps for a range of common functions used across large companies ? an app to search for a name in a personnel directory, another to allow a user to enter an expense claim, and so on ? and they can be freely downloaded.
Once downloaded, users can join a newsgroup specifically focused on that app, so all those deploying it within their intranet setups can feed their experiences back to the group of users and the original developers. This cross-sharing of information, as Barksdale notes, can greatly reduce development costs, which makes it attractive to large organisations.
Netscape has also unveiled a working intranet site for a fictional company, called Airius Aircraft, to demonstrate the features of these Appfoundry apps in action. The opening page has a scrolling list of daily announcements at the bottom of the screen, including a message from the Boss. Click on it and an audio playback control appears on screen with a message from on-high. In this way, information can be distributed easily on a company-wide basis through Communicator?s Navigator browser.
Netscape has built the Airius Virtual Intranet around an Informix database and Sun servers. It?s possible to look into group discussions on the site, search a database of employees using a simple pop-up app, and even check out the menu in the company cafeteria.
What Netscape is trying to do with Appfoundry and Airius is get corporates thinking about new ways of working together that force IT departments? minds out of the networked PC tracks they?re used to. ?Communicator seems to be no big deal to many people in the PC arena because they really don?t see its significance,? says one Netscape developer.
?Constellation makes it all clearer, with Netscape moving towards collaborative computing based on the fat server. It?s a different ball game to distributed computing with networked fat PCs. It goes back to the days of centralised departments, and plays on the possibility of much lower costs for adding new seats. That?s why Netscape?s message is getting across in the corporates.?
If Communicator and Constellation seem to be laying the philosophical groundwork for a paradigm shift in corporate computing culture, there?s still one gaping chink in Netscape?s armour. The company simply does not have a convincing marketing and channel strategy. Many of Microsoft?s business partners write the company off without much thought these days. ?Communicator is a heap of shit,? says one.
?Netscape will just be obliterated by Microsoft?s marketing savvy. Look at how Microsoft is delivering products for Internet developers these days. Look at all the strate- gic relationships they?re making with ISPs and Web developers. They only started out a year ago and they?re already coming up with first-class products. What?s Netscape delivered in the past year??
But Netscape?s failure to get a decent channel in place could well be explained by the fact that it too has developed several key strategic relationships: one with Sun and the other with IBM. The evidence of a strong relationship with Big Blue is increasingly transparent, despite the bitter attacks Lotus levels at Netscape. That could all be serving as a smokescreen.
In the past few months, IBM and Netscape have announced a host of collaborative arrangements ? from the delivery of an OS/2 Warp 4 version of Navigator last December to a series of Internet educational tours and training schemes.
One look at the spec for Communicator Pro (see box) suggests that IBM has had a big hand in it. This is evident in the Autoadmin component that puts IS administrators back in the hot seat (something many IBM customers would dearly love), as well as the IBM host-on-demand module that allows Java-based emulation of a 3270 dumb terminal.
?Autoadmin allows for big cost savings with upgrades on the fly controlled by the IS department,? said Broussard at a recent Communicator briefing. ?While the host-on-demand gives IBM?s customers access to their legacy data.?
IBM could be getting ready to replay its star-maker role ? where it elevated MS to dizzy heights by using Dos on its first PCs, it could provide the endorsement Netscape needs for corporate credibility this year.
Now that IBM is moving more of its sales fulfilment into the dealer channel ? 60 per cent of sales worldwide by 2000 ? and moving its own staff towards marketing and customer liaison, the company would be the ideal partner for Netscape. One provides the marketing and channel savvy; the other provides the software foundation for the IT infrastructure.
Microsoft?s only hope to counter that threat is to go for ?Fud versus cheaper (but unknown) computing? ? an ironic turning of the tables on how it attacked IBM?s control of enterprise computing in the 1980s. MS has already put a lot of energy into developing a Web-based distributed computing model, and will need to continue to develop that alternative line.
The firm has a host of new ideas and products coming downstream based on its Active Desktop concept, with the Windows OS integrated with the IE browser, and active information being pushed out to the Internet connected user.
?Constellation with things like Homeport is a poorer version of our Active Desktop,? claims Gittins. ?The difference is that guys who sell servers, like Netscape, believe processing will move back to the server, whereas we believe processing will go on being distributed. We?re keeping both those options open. Active Server will allow both.
?In Q1 of this year, we?ll be launching products that allow our customers to execute on either the server or the client. If it executes locally, it?ll be richer. If it executes remotely, it won?t be so rich. The message from Microsoft is that most people will start to see good reasons not to abandon the PC environment.?
What all this suggests is that the next marketing battle in the computing wars is turning into a re-run of the old managed centralised IT infrastructure versus the distributed computing world that PCs and networks created. But this time, the corporate control freaks may seize control from the little man at the desktop. And Netscape?s balloon will be well and truly floated.
Internet Dealer key links
View pictures of all of last night's fights
Acquisitive comms provider swoops on Frontier Voice & Data and StoneHouse Logic
Cybersecurity firm rakes in £3.6m for unwanted unit
Results, reaction and pictures from last night's CRN Fight Night