Netscape is ready to move beyond Web browsers, pitching its new Communicator client as a groupware tool that enables Net-based collaboration.
Microsoft is looking to get rid of the Web browser altogether, sucking the technology directly into the next release of its Windows operating system.
And that's not even to mention the many start-ups hawking new "push" technologies (see December NetMarketing) that aim to move content off the Web altogether.
But don't be distracted by the hype. Your Web site will remain your main online marketing vehicle in 1997 and for some time to come, and both Microsoft and Netscape have tucked groundbreaking new design capabilities into their upcoming browser releases that will significantly alter the face of the Web.
BUZZWORDS TO REMEMBER
Web design moves in waves. Remember when Netscape 2.0 came out, and suddenly the Web's gray backgrounds and bit-heavy image maps were replaced with colorful backgrounds? Or how about last year, when table-based layouts, frames, Java tickers and flashing GIF animations suddenly became the status quo?
In each case, Web sites either caught the wave or got left behind. So what's new for '97?
Some of the buzzwords to remember include style sheets, which let designers flow Web content into pre-designed, graphically sophisticated templates (Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.0 already supports style sheets); layers, which enable graphics and text to be layered on a page; and absolute positioning, which will give designers the ability to define the exact X,Y, Z coordinates of any element on a page.
In short, expect the Web to look and feel much like a multimedia CD-ROM title. And note: there's no plug-ins or add-ons required. This is straight, next-generation HTML.
As this column was being written, Netscape Communicator was available only in early preview release, so examples of these capabilities are few and far between.
The Netscape site, however, does offer one very cool demo at that includes the capabilities described above.
All sounds great, right? Well, any leap forward comes with some major caveats. Both Microsoft and Netscape have separately demonstrated support for most of the features described above, but in some cases they've taken different technology approaches. It's not clear yet where they find common ground, however.
It also remains to be seen how quickly Web users will upgrade to the newest browsers. Many users still use Netscape 2.0, and version 3.0 of both the Microsoft and Netscape browsers are still fairly new.
That means it's possible that initially sites built with these new capabilities may be seen only by leading-edge Web surfers.
The bottom line: If the brief but frenzied history of the Web is any guide, frustrated Web designers and attention-craving marketers will flock to these new capabilities and build next-generation Web sites as soon as possible.
And anyone left behind will feel the pressure to catch up, even though many of their customers won't be able to see it.
Richard Karpinski is editor at large for NetGuide Magazine and author of "Beyond HTML" from Osborne/McGraw Hill. Visit him at http://www.netcom.com/~rjkarp.