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July 16, 1998

NAVIGATOR 4.5 REDIRECT FEATURE ANGERS CRITICS

By CBR Staff Writer

No sooner did Netscape announce the beta release of its Communicator 4.5 web client, than critics unleashed a storm of protest over the behavior of a new Smart Browsing feature (CI No 3,425). When a 4.5 user types scripting into the location bar, for example, Communicator no longer adds www. And .com to whisk the user to Dave Winer’s Scripting News. Instead, the browser links to a scripting-related page on Netscape’s own Netcenter. Users who type the whole URL are not affected by the feature. Netscape says Smart Browsing integrates a new generation of services on its NetCenter site. Rival content providers, however, say the feature changes the way the browser behaves in order to drive unsuspecting web surfers to Netcenter, artificially raising hit rates and enabling Netscape to charge more for its ads. Userland CEO Dave Winer is particularly annoyed about Smart Browsing, although as he points out, CNet – owner of www.news.com, www.computers.com, www.search.com and many other generic domain names – may be the hardest hit. The bottom-line for me is that they want to redirect flow from my site to theirs, Winer writes, so if I want to preserve the value of my domain name, I have to work against the adoption of Netscape’s browser. I’m not saying I’ll do that, but I sure am thinking about it. The controversy highlights problems with the existing domain name registration system. Inconsistent handling of keywords is reflected in inconsistent allocation of trademarks and generic names, which often end up associated with highly inappropriate content. Whitehouse.com and Bambi.com, for example, are pornographic sites. Netscape says it is performing a public service by redirecting Whitehouse and Bambi to www.whitehouse.org and www.disney.com. This reasoning is generally accepted. It’s only when the same feature threatens rival commercial interests that people have started to get upset. Microsoft has taken the high moral ground over its rival: We considered and have thus far rejected additional ideas such as including a set of pre-defined URL mappings to keywords, wrote director of Windows Marketing Yusuf Mehdi, this is not something we believe can be done in such a way that benefits users, nor is fair to the great many content providers that publish information on the web. In fact Internet Explorer contains a similar feature, although users have to type Go before the keyword. Netscape defends its new functionality. The purpose of Smart Browsing is to make using the internet easier, argues Netscape’s director of client marketing Julie Herendeen. She explains that trademarked keywords go to the site of the company that owns the trademark, while generic words link to a Netcenter-branded directory. If the new user was looking for Scripting.com, though, doesn’t this feature make the net harder to use? That’s assuming that they want to find the more obscure site, says Herendeen. People can turn this off – it’s just a switch. Like anything in beta the reason we put it up is to get feedback, and we’re getting feedback. They certainly are.

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