March 10, 1997

Netscape's vision expands beyond enterprise
By Eamonn Sullivan


Even if you're not a Netscape customer, its "networked enterprise" initiative (see Mike Moeller's story, "Netscape offers CrossWare trio") demands attention.

Like Netscape's previous strategic declaration--the so-called full-featured intranet--this initiative will set the tone for the intranet market over the next year.

Netscape's vision is not original. It echoes themes kicking around for the last couple of years. But its very lack of originality makes it more likely that you will see similar initiatives from all the major players.

Netscape's vision is of a business environment in which your company becomes so tightly coupled with suppliers, partners and customers that it will become difficult to tell them apart from the department down the hall. Through virtual private networks and Internet-based applications, you will communicate with those previously very separate entities as easily as you do your co-worker in the next office.

The networked enterprise is becoming a reality now. The use of contractors instead of employees and the outsourcing of many internal operations are just two examples of the crumbling of corporate walls. And the trend is accelerating as it gets easier to link disparate computer systems through Internet protocols and write applications that will run anywhere.The details of Netscape's product plans also are familiar. The client- and server-side object store, with its replication and capability to run applications offline, is similar to Lotus' Domino and Weblicator.

Universal in-box, workflow and document management (which is already in SuiteSpot 3.0) features have already been tried in Novell Inc.'s GroupWise and Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange.

Other planned features are more original, including something called Hypertree, which will allow users to browse all of the resources on the network in an outlinelike view. Gemini, the code name for a new document-rendering engine, also sounds interesting. It will not only render HTML documents faster but also provide new and better multimedia and layout capabilities.

On the server side, Netscape is continuing its attempt to separate your organization from dependence on proprietary network operating systems. Pulling that off, however, will require things like a distributed file system and print capabilities that are not yet available in Netscape's "full-featured intranet."

The final piece of the puzzle is the development environment, code-named Palomar, which is scheduled to ship in the summer. The supposedly PowerBuilder-like environment will fill a major hole in Netscape's product line.

But there's also a contradiction or two in Netscape's plan. Some of the most compelling features in Mercury and Apollo (the code names for the next client and server suites, respectively) require tight coupling between the server and the client, which is precisely what Netscape criticizes in its competitors' products.

Ironically, getting Netscape's products to work in Netscape's networked enterprise vision will require falling back to the core set of common features that are now available from all the major players. If your suppliers are tied into your order-entry system through HTML forms, for example, those forms can be just as easily generated by Netscape, Lotus, IBM or Microsoft.

The real benefit of Netscape's product plans is that it will force the major players to respond and prove that they can support a networked enterprise better, faster and cheaper. Unlike previous attempts at achieving this goal—such as EDI and the AT&T; Notes network—it might work this time.

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