New 'Communicator' Threatens Netscape's Future

AOL this month debuted in beta form a standalone e-mail client bundled with a new version of AOL Instant Messenger and an address book, a package collectively dubbed AOL Communicator.

Code-named Photon, Communicator has been in development for close to two years, although AOL has made no decisions on how to market the product. But sources say a faction of the company is pushing for Communicator to succeed Netscape, which has all but disappeared from users' screens.

AOL began work on Photon after the release of Netscape 6 in November 2000 was met with harsh criticism. Netscape 6 was based on slow and unstable beta builds of Mozilla, the open source Web browser, and developers within AOL wished to make the mail and IM clients more appealing to experienced users.

Communicator utilizes the Gecko engine and XUL user interface language found in Mozilla, but it was developed entirely in-house and is not open source, according to AOL.

"Communicator is targeted to heavy users of AIM and advanced users of e-mail," AOL spokesperson Catherine Corre told BetaNews.

Instead of Web browsing, the focus of Communicator is to provide AOL users a unified e-mail and instant messaging experience, the company says. AOL Communicator Mail supports AOL, POP and IMAP e-mail accounts integrated into a single client. Automatic spam filtering has been added to weed out junk mail, an essential feature offered by rival service MSN.

Instant Messenger for AOL Communicator connects to both AIM and ICQ servers independently, but messaging across networks is not possible. AOL is currently testing interoperability between its two IM networks, but Corre declined to say when Communicator would feature such functionality.

AOL has enabled encrypted instant messaging for the first time with Communicator. Users can secure IM conversations using standard digital certificates in the same fashion used for e-mail.

Improving on the Netscape address book, IM buddies can be associated with stored contacts and given "Friendly Names" in Communicator. This integration allows the instant messenger client to notify a user when mail is received from a buddy, or send mail to an offline contact.

Despite their overlapping feature sets, AOL has developed Communicator independent of Netscape. But resurrecting the Communicator namesake -- Netscape's former moniker -- for the new product suite may not be coincidental. Initial plans plotted AOL Communicator as a potential substitute for Netscape, however the release of Netscape 7 in August ushered in a much improved browser suite built on the final version of Mozilla.

Sources at AOL tell BetaNews a rift has formed between those supporting the old Netscape brand and backers of Communicator as a Netscape replacement.

With the recent beta release, christened Milestone 10, AOL is evaluating consumer response to the software. "As with all beta tested products we collect feedback from users," Corre said. "Since it is still in its early stages, we cannot comment on any distribution or marketing strategies."

Shifting focus away from the Web browser has been a long expected transition for AOL's Netscape group.

Communicator enables AOL to focus on areas in which the company can better compete. Microsoft's ubiquitous Internet Explorer Web browser has left little room for alternatives and even AOL's 8.0 client continues to embed the Internet Explorer engine. Instead, AOL can take advantage of the lead it enjoys with instant messaging and the millions of users with AOL e-mail addresses.

With the software still in beta testing, AOL has left its options open for how to position Communicator.

Corre confirmed the XUL interface enables AOL to potentially build Communicator for Windows, Linux and Mac platforms. Communicator could also be pitted as a competitor to Microsoft's Outlook Express. However, if Netscape avoids its longstanding fate, the primary audience for Communicator may simply end up being AOL users looking for an alternative method to access their e-mail.

"A lot of these features would be useful to AOL customers," Corre said. "But it's too early to comment on a final outcome."

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