Netscape 6.0 ships as child of open source, AOL

Netscape 6 is finally here. After three years of marginal upgrades, Netscape Communications has released a completely revamped browser. And it works, mostly.

          Netscape 6 is finally here.

          After three years of marginal upgrades, the faded browser champ Netscape Communications has released the final version of the Netscape 6.0 Web browser. Netscape 6.0 features a slick, new, customisable user interface, its own version of AOL's instant messaging service, and a program called Gecko that speedily renders Web page text and graphics.

          Netscape has dropped the brand name "Communicator" and has skipped a 5.0 release, arguing that the update's improvements warrant the sequential jump. You can download the free browser from Netscape.

          It's Netscape's first major browser overhaul since the company and technology became part of America Online in early 1999. Netscape 6.0 serves as the company's renewed attempt to reclaim some of its lost market share. Today, 86% of Web surfers use a version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, according to WebSideStory's StatMarket. Only 12.5% use Netscape's browser, in contrast to its former domination of the Web browser market.

          Netscape 6.0 brings the browser closer to technological parity with Internet Explorer 5.5. But Netscape goes a step further, tying its browser more closely to its popular Web site, Netscape.com. For example, shortcuts to Netscape.com business, entertainment, and Web-based personal information destinations are embedded at the bottom of the browser window. Microsoft has come up with a similar ploy in MSN Explorer, a version of IE tied directly to MSN.com sites and services.

          The final release also marks the culmination of efforts by thousands of Web developers who were given the browser source code to help build it under the Mozilla open-source program. Netscape invited those developers to improve the code, promising in turn to commercialize the best of the improvements.

          New in Netscape 6.0

          Among the highlights of the improvements are:

          Small size (8.5MB without Java), which can speed up installation

          Gecko technology, for rendering Web pages rapidly

          Mail-program support for America Online e-mail and multiple accounts

          Integration of AOL Instant Messenger, which has an estimated 64 million users

          My Sidebar tabs, which provide quick and easy access to customized Web information and applications

          Password and cookie managers, which automate log-ins and protect user privacy on a site-by-site basis

          Multiple themes that let users choose the look of the browser

          Forms Manager, which automatically completes information entered into online forms.

          Download, but Beware

          Netscape loyalists will want to try this version, but you shouldn't dump your Communicator or IE browser. In terms of software stability, Netscape 6.0 is a Rock of Gibraltar compared with previous beta versions of the browser, which were riddled with bugs. But Netscape 6.0 can't be relied upon to display Web pages optimised for IE and earlier Netscape browsers.

          "A small number of advanced Web sites will present some problems," says Eric Krock, group product manager for Netscape. "But the vast majority of sites will work fine."

          Netscape 6.0, however, did fail to display a number of Web pages correctly during our cursory tests of the shipping software.

          The browser also failed to perform basic functions, such as triggering a Java Security window that gives Java applications permission to function in your Web browser. Some of the Java-based services that could not be used with the browser include telephony services at DialPad.com, applications hosted at ThinkFree.com, and games at MSN.com. This isn't the first time Netscape has had JavaScript problems.

          The loading problem is with the sites, says Netscape's Krock. They use SmartUpdate, a Netscape program that automatically downloads software onto your hard drive. Netscape 6.0 abandons support for SmartUpdate and replaces it with the more advanced XP Install, which streamlines the download process and works with any browser and operating system.

          Web Standards Are Key

          Other problems cropped up in our tests when we navigated Web sites that use advanced pulldown menus and mouse-overs. At the Associated Press AP Wire Web site, for example, Netscape 6 blacked out portions of text, rendering it illegible, and links were crippled.

          Krock blames bad HTML coding by the Web site's creators--a problem he says can be easily corrected by authors of Web sites.

          "We built the most standards-compliant browser on the planet," Krock says. "Unfortunately the Web wasn't built for one standard browser. That's why we built Netscape 6.0."

          Other problems plague Netscape 6.0, including nonstandard implementation of advanced Web programming languages like Document Object Model and Dynamic HTML. Nonstandard implementation of such technologies can cause Web page hiccups resulting in menus not expanding or other advanced features not rendering altogether, says Netscape.

          Krock makes no apologies for Netscape's strict support for open Web standards. He says Netscape 6.0 solves an overwhelming majority of open-standards problems, which outweighs the browser's shortcomings.

          Netscape hopes to convince Web developers that Netscape 6.0 is the best browser for applications, and that more apps will draw more Web surfers. As for Web developers, many applaud Netscape for its move towards a standards-based browser, citing frustration at having to build multiple versions of Web pages for various browsers.

          Krock maintains that Netscape 6.0 is more compliant than IE5, and criticises IE5's "poor adoption of standards."

          Meanwhile, Microsoft has embraced standards from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in IE5. But many Web sites still offer tools with Windows-and-IE-only functionality.

          The PC and Beyond

          Netscape 6.0 is available for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. (The Gecko browser supports IBM, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems.) Last week Gateway launched its first Internet appliance, which features a light version of the AOL proprietary online service and embeds Netscape's Gecko browser.

          It's unclear whether AOL will be able to restore Netscape to anything close to its former glory with Netscape 6.0. But Netscape is hoping that IE's close ties to Windows will matter less as applications move to the platform-agnostic Internet.

          Currently, Netscape's Gecko engine has no serious competition from Microsoft. However, Microsoft is working on a sixth version of its IE browser and is in the early stages of putting in place its .Net strategy, which will make Windows available for rent over the Internet.

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