Netscape today formally announced their new Netcaster product, which is being developed under the code-named "Constellation." Netcaster will be incorporated as a component in the next preview release of Communicator, due next month. Netscape is clearly trying to out-race Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0, which offers similar push technology with a new Windows shell. The Microsoft offering is expected to ultimately win-out over Netcaster, however, since it will eventually be bundled with the Windows operating systems and will be given away for free. Microsoft has also offered up the CDF push technology as an open standard. The Communicator suite, whose components will not sell separately, will cost $60-100, depending on the version purchased. It's likely that Netscape's biggest successes with Netcaster will be on other platforms with less user- friendly interfaces, such as UNIX.

Netcaster features a "WebTop" personalized desktop replacement that can display channels of pushed content, Web sites, and local applications simultaneously.  Netscape plans on releasing WebTop APIs so that companies can create custom desktops for their users. An airline reservation help desk might have a desktop filled with a custom version of SABRE, a tool to book airline reservations, for example. The nicest feature of WebTop is that user settings are stored on a server so no matter what computer they use--ideally anywhere in the world--their customized settings will be available.

Other interesting features include:

  • Channels (formerly "LiveSites"): Web content delivered via HTTP that is   identified by topic.
  • Channel Finder: A subscription service for Channels. It installs 10   default channels that can be expanded to 20.
  • Offline: information can be delivered in the background and viewed   later when you're offline.
  • Integrated Marimba Castanet: the Java-based program delivery service is   hot these days but unproven.
Sadly, many of the features originally planned for Constellation have been (pardon the pun) pushed back to a later release or scrapped altogether so that the product can be released more quickly. Originally, Constellation was to allow users to store document files over the Internet so that they could access them at different locations. Netscape is reviewing this plan and might include it in the next version of Constellation, a piece of vaporware code-named "Mercury." The "current" version, still in beta, isn't even due until June and they're already talking about the next-next version.

As part of today's announcement, Netscape introduced over 20 content providers who are going to support Netcaster, including ABC News and CNN.

Personally, I think they should have kept the name "Constellation.