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Wei Yen has a vision. Someday, TV sets, cellular phones, and other consumer gadgets will ply the Net's World Wide Web. ''For the consumer, the Internet should really be like electricity,'' says Yen, chief executive of Navio Communications Inc., a Netscape Communications Corp. affiliate that is pursuing software for consumer markets.

A provocative idea, but not exactly a bolt from the blue. Unlike Netscape--which set out to make the Mosaic browser a ubiquitous product before most folks knew it existed--Navio didn't get to the party first. In fact, Navio is a relative latecomer. Spyglass Inc. has built a TV-set browser that will soon be available on Mitsubishi sets. Startup WebTV is using its own browser for TV Web-surfing. Sega Enterprises Ltd. is using a browser from PlanetWeb Inc. in Net Link, an add-on to its Saturn game player. Says PlanetWeb Chairman Kamran Elahian: ''We want to do a Netscape on Netscape.'' So does Microsoft Corp. Its weapon is Windows CE, an operating system for handheld devices.

NO TIME. Navio started late for good reason. Busy trying to launch new products for corporate intranets--and keep a step ahead of Microsoft--Netscape didn't have the time to chase the consumer market. So last January, it shifted its consumer efforts to Navio, a joint venture with seven electronics and computer companies, including Nintendo and Sony. Despite its pedigree, ''Navio has got an awful lot to prove,'' says Forrester Research Inc. analyst Josh Bernoff.

Yen, a former senior vice-president at Silicon Graphics Inc., is pushing his 60-person staff to deliver the goods. In July, Navio finished its first product, NC Navigator, a downsized version of Navigator for network computers. IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc. plan to use the software in their network computers. In January, Navio announced TV Navigator. The first customer is Zenith Electronics Corp., which scrapped a deal to build an Internet TV around technology from startup Diba Inc. ''Navio is the strongest proposition out there,'' says Tom L. Sorensen, Zenith's director of new technologies and business development.

Yen says new products will arrive every three months, starting with software for TV set-top boxes. Each package will have the Netscape Navigator features that are familiar to Web surfers. But Navio wants to do more than simply graft a browser onto consumer devices. Each version will be tailored to the particular device. The TV version, for example, will have splashier multimedia and 3-D graphics. Other possibilities include phone browsers that connect to global phone directories, gas pumps with readouts showing local traffic jams, and tickers on TV listing prices in your personal stock portfolio, says Yen.

TRICKS. Will anybody want this stuff? Analysts say it's uncertain when the market for Web devices that aren't computers will take off. A recent Dataquest Inc. survey found that 93% of U.S. households have no intention of buying a Net-connected TV or set-top box. Dataquest analyst Van Baker says most of them don't know what such a device would do. Admits James H. Clark, chairman of Netscape and Navio: ''It will take about two more years to start in full swing.''

In the meantime, Navio may provide other benefits to Netscape. Navio has done some programming tricks to compress the Navigator browser program so it can be used in a gadget with limited memory. On a big computer, that could dramatically improve speed. More important, the advanced multimedia and animation software used by Navio could improve PC browsers, too. Navio's most important role, however, may be to provide Netscape with a fallback position. If Microsoft succeeds in its push into the corporate intranet market, Netscape may need one.

By Robert D. Hof in Sunnyvale, Calif.

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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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