Beginning with a beta release next month, Netscape Communications is upgrading the Communicator 4.0 client package in advance of next year's rollout of Communicator 5.0, which will include a new interface and features from the Mozilla.org effort.
Communicator 4.5, due to ship in December, includes new Smart Browsing features that link the Web client to the company's Netcenter site to offer users an easier way to locate URLs. Users of the free upgrade will also find an automatically generated set of related links and a way to set the browser to exclude sites of a certain rating, such as adult content sites.
The release also features fuller Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) messaging features, tighter Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) directory integration, and consolidates administration from the Mission Control Console. The release also combines the Collabra client with the Messaging client. Communicator 4.5 will also lose its push technology licensed from Marimba, known as Netcaster.
Communicator 4.5 will include an updated Java virtual machine (JVM) that supports the Java 1.1 specification. The new JVM will offer a 30% to 40% speed improvement on the Macintosh platform, and "a little better" speed improvement on Windows 95 and Windows 98 platforms, said Matt Harris, senior product manager for Communicator at Netscape.
Just as the final release of Communicator 4.5 — consisting of the Navigator, Messenger, Composer, and Calender clients — arrives in late fall, the first public beta releases of Communicator 5.0 will also debut, with final delivery several months after that in 1999.
The pace of Netscape's client offerings has slowed markedly since the company earlier this year made its clients free and opened its source code for open community development. The Mozilla effort will not play a role in Communicator 4.5, Harris said.
"This is the interim step release to tie the browser into the rest of the infrastructure, like directory and e-mail. As with any point release, they are fixing what should have been in the full release [a year ago]," said Don DePalma, an analyst at Forrester Research, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "We have eclipsed the notion of 'Internet time.' That's history."
Netscape's chief browser rival, Microsoft, is also ramping up its next major release, Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0, which entered developer preview beta this month, but no public beta arrival time or final release has been set, "(though) we'd love to get it out by the end of year," said Rob Bennett, group product manager for IE.
Current studies of browser market share give Netscape 55%of the market with Navigator, to 47% for Microsoft with IE.
"It's hard to tell what Netscape's strategy is right now," said Bennett. "They have reorganised the browser work under the Netcenter group, and it seems more tied to Netcenter. It's becoming more a Netcenter browser than a Web browser."
DePalma said that Microsoft's integrated offerings may make more sense for large enterprises, despite the US government's antitrust suit against Microsoft for integrating IE with the Windows 98 operating system, among other issues.
"(The browser) is the point where all applications come together," said DePalma. "This is in effect an operating system for the client sitting on top of another operating system ... If I were Netscape, I would have optimised Windows 95 JVM instead of all that spending on attorneys' fees," he said, referring to the antitrust suit.