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 CD Home < Web Review < 1997 < Feb 07  


Netscape's Constellation

By Wes Thomas
Rank: 1-3

Netscape devotees everywhere await the appearance of the mystical Constellation with all the fervor of Hale-Bopp comet fans, with its myth of a huge UFO mothership hidden in its tail, arriving from the Galactic Federation to rescue true believers from the apocalypse.

Constellation, so the other myth goes, is Netscape's secret weapon in the cosmic battle for the hearts and minds of the intranet/Internet user.

It's Netscape Constellation/Communicator vs. Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 Active Desktop/Windows 97: which one will The Force be with?

I had to know. So I went on a pilgrimage to Mountain View for an audience with Constellation's guru/inventor, Mike McCue. McCue was CEO of Paper Software, which developed Netscape's Live3D and was acquired last year by Netscape.

Constellation "NUI" integrates
push media and desktop

"Microsoft is putting the Internet into the desktop; we're putting the desktop into the Internet," McCue said fervently, firing up his laptop. "Microsoft Active Desktop is tied to the Windows tree structure, so content providers' interfaces all look the same and the platform is limited to Windows 97."

McCue calls Constellation a NUI -- Network User Interface -- which will replace GUIs (graphical user interfaces), he believes. The idea: put the user in direct contact with Internet content and a personalized user interface instead of access through menus, tools bars, windows, trees of files and folders, and other operating-system tools.

He first demo'd (not a real demo, just a presentation) how Constellation will allow a developer to remove "chrome" (menus and toolbars, etc.) and take over the entire screen. "Constellation is the next evolutionary step up from traditional Web pages. You can now create content that runs full-screen, totally immersive!"

I felt like I was talking to Steve Jobs in the early Apple days.

Instead of a scroll bar, McCue continued, with Constellation, you'll move around the screen by grabbing objects with the mouse and flinging them. Want to return the operating system? Just bump the top of the screen (the trick: a new window.moveto JavaScript object in the latest JavaScript API).

But he showed me why you may not want to: Selector, a pop-up showing your active info: phone book, projects, documents you're working on, spreadsheets, etc. The design concept: a single user interface that transparently retrieves documents on your computer as well as the Net.

McCue next showed me layering: multiple layers of images and text that pop up when a mouse passes over them, thanks to Netscape's new LAYER tag. Layers can be transparent and animated. "Imagine a 3D VRML model that floats over a page and acts as an imagemap," McCue suggested.

Constellation's approach is clearly object- and content-oriented instead of file- and application-oriented, something Jobs would understand immediately.

Netcasting: integrated push media

But beyond the snazzy new user interface, McCue layed out Netscape's grand plan for delivering content to the desktop, which he calls"Netcasting." Constellation, he said, will support four netcasting schemes:

  • Email for sending pages, using Inbox Direct technology for news headlines, etc.
  • Offline browsing (similar to Freeloader: poll a page and download content at intervals).
  • Notification (similar to BackWeb and Intermind Communicator).
  • Channels, based on Marimba broadcast technology, for automatic background delivery and updating of content and apppications.

Netcast content will be delivered via personalized InfoBlocks -- similar to BackWeb but interactive and typically at the bottom of the screen. These will let you access tools (such as search engine forms), notification messages, favorite sites, news tickers, channels and other content. The InfoStream will update InfoBlocks in the background or during off hours.

You'll create your own custom InfoStream profile. And your server will automatically download customized information to your desktop via email, Web page polling, or via a channel from a Marimba transmitter.

That sure beats the half dozen push media and notification apps hovering on my desktop battling one another for dominance. Plus you're not constrained to just those sites that a particular push media service offers, and you don't have to go through their special weirdo user interface and a centralized service. You decide which sites you want to subscribe to and go there directly.

I asked McCue if netcasting replaces all those confusing push media options. "Not completely," he said. "There are some things they do that we don't. We took the parts that were easy to use and did not require major infrastructure changes and combined them into one simple user interface that eliminates the middle man."

This butts up against Microsoft's push-media scheme head-on, of course, with PointCast technology built into Internet Explorer 4.0.

Netscape has one more clever strategic tool: HomePort. This is a personal workspace on the server of your choice that lets you store your active documents and special apps. The idea: you can access your HomePort from whatever computer you are on by clicking on the HomePort icon. Your currently active documents and user interface are then automatically replicated to whatever machine you happen to be on (in a secure cache).

McCue offered an example: you could have a sales channel that lets you access your personal spreadsheets and presentations plus the company's latest product info, all automatically downloaded to your laptop.

"We're also working with Navio, a Netscape spinoff that is doing consumer-oriented implementations of Netscape," he added. "Eventually, for example, you'll be able to go an airport kiosk and access your HomePort -- or even access it at an ATM."

Live sites replace Web sites

The Next Big Thing: a new breed of "live sites" -- Web sites designed for the Constellation NUI that integrate push media -- predicted McCue.

Let's nail this down with an example. Let's say you subscribe to the hypothetical MTV live site. You specify the music you like and it's automatically downloaded in the background or overnight.  Clips for new music in your genre can be automatically broadcast to you -- no need to click and wait.

Next, you click on your Airlines InfoBlock and register for notification of flight and price changes. When new flights come along, the Airlines server sends an email message to the InfoStream, which opens up the schedule on your desktop (if that's what you've asked it to do). Or your might have a Bank channel that sends a notification to Constellation that a check has just cleared. Your personal finance app then uses that to automatically update your checkbook.

Need to check on a package shipment? Click the Fedex InfoBlock and it zooms out to full screen in the Fedex live site, where you punch in an airbill number and get an instant package status. One click and you're back on your own desktop. Click on the Selector and your screen becomes your current Word document.

What about intranets? "From an IS manager point of view, in a large company you have to support many platforms and operating systems," McCue said. "We're creating one environment that looks and feels the same regardless of the operating sytem. It's not tied to a particular system or hard drive. And since live sites serve pure HTML, it gets through firewalls." Unlike some push-media schemes.

OK, I was sold. Now how do I create my own live site? I asked Tim Hickman, Constellation Product Manager, for some tips.

"Live sites can be easily created with just HTML and JavaScript," Hickman said. "And they can be animated using JavaScript, applets, and plug-ins. We're also changing the cache model to allow applets to work offline to avoid time-consuming downloading."

What about servers? "The intelligence is in the client," he said. "So live sites work with any normal HTTP server. We're not requiring content providers to buy a new server or put in a whole new infrastructure. For notifications, the only thing that goes on the server is a simple preferences file for each user with a URL pointer, the chosen polling mechanism, and how often the site is to be polled." 

Netscape is also providing a client pull solution based on Marimba Castanet technology. "You can use a combination of HTML, JavaScript, and Java, depending on the complexity needed. Each subscriber can have his or her own custom channel on that site and can set up an individualized channel in just a few minutes," Hickman said.

He said Netscape is also developing APIs for JavaScript, Java, and C++ to allow apps to communicate with Constellation. A Channel Developers Guide is due out this spring, to be posted on the Netscape Web site.

Keep in mind: Constellation itself is not yet an announced product; it's still a technology concept. The product, whatever it's called, is due out mid-year.

One big concern with live sites: while the content will be based on open JavaScript and HTML standards, you'll need Constellation to access the full functionality (polling, background downloading, off-line browsing, and so on).

Will Internet Explorer 4.0 support all that? Don't hold your breath.

In any event, Web surfers using Constellation (or Active Desktop) will find two types of sites: boring static ones and live/active sites with custom delivery of information and rich experiences. Static sites are history.

Will the Microsoft empire strike back with Windows 97 and Active Desktop? Stay tuned, boys and girls, for the next thrilling episode....

Copyright © 2003 CMP Media LLC