Netscape Communications already expects a tough battle against Microsoft s upcoming Windows 98, with its built-in browser. But what it might not be prepared for is the dramatic performance edge Microsoft may have in the Windows 98 browser space.
Based on interviews and hands-on experience, it has become clear that Microsoft's integration of the Internet Explorer (IE) browser into the operating system lets the browser start up faster, often a lot faster.
Netscape could get a respite if the US. Department of Justice, or the cabal of individual states reportedly banding against Microsoft, delay the release of Windows 98. But that action is far from certain.
A producer at a major game publisher in Northern California believes IE benefits by having many of its resources load up along with the rest of the operating system at boot up. "Clearly the startup is enormously faster on IE than on Navigator. It's probably prelaunching, precaching and pre-everything,'' he said.
The Microsoft speed edge doesn't just stop with Internet Explorer under Windows 98, but extends to the experiences some users have with various NT betas as well.
"I have noticed that [Internet Explorer] had superior performance to some degree, mostly during initialisation of the browser. I'm assuming that it is due to the tighter integration of the browser with the operating system,'' says Jason Olmstead, Internet services director at design firm Phat Media, Inc., who has been beta-testing Internet Explorer under Windows 98 and NT 5.0. He also noted that Internet Explorer under NT 5 only needed an additional 2Mb of RAM but Netscape's Communicator 4.0 required an extra 11Mb.
However, the issue may not be limited to just loading time. A number of test sites have told Network World that Netscape browsers also seem to run much slower than IE under beta versions of NT 5.0 and Windows 98, as well as under the beta version of Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition. One user claimed in an e-mail to Network Worldthat Microsoft's Winsock Dynamic Link Library isn't written to a standard API, which could bring about a performance hit on Netscape's browser because Netscape's browser looks for a standard API.
It's a claim that Microsoft strongly disputes. "Everything we use with [Internet Explorer] is completely open and completely documented. There are no undocumented APIs that we're taking advantage of with Internet Explorer,'' says Craig Beilinson, product manager at Microsoft for Internet platforms and tools.
Beilinson said Internet Explorer's performance was a high priority from the start, and several changes were made to meet that goal. For instance, use of a component architecture loads only the features you need into memory; and support for HTTP 1.1, dynamic HTML and Microsoft's virtual machine for Java all promise a boost in performance.
"Personally, I prefer Internet Explorer because of the performance,'' said Richard Soh, senior systems engineer with a major New York investment company. Yet, the investment company standardised earlier on Netscape, and Soh does not expect to change for some time.
Netscape may have trouble overcoming the speed deficit. "When you take something and embed it in the operating system, it's going to run faster,'' says Rob Enderle, senior analyst at Giga Information Group in Santa Clara, California. "Unless Netscape does its own tuning, which is unlikely, then its browser will be slower than Internet Explorer.''
Not only does this issue directly affect Netscape's browser share, but it also impacts other revenue centers, such as the Netcenter Web site and its enterprise-software product line. (Netscape was contacted for this story but declined to comment.)
"I think that [continuing to lose browser market share] is something that Netscape should be losing sleep over,'' says Jeetu Patel, vice president of research at Doculabs, a research company in Chicago. "It needs to keep browser share to sell servers. If market share goes down significantly, it'll affect the revenue in my view.''
While some performance junkies will always choose the fastest product, others have a more balanced approach. According to Phat Media's Olmstead, the decision to go with a particular browser is more likely to hinge on security, reliability and the browser's consistency under different operating systems. "When doing browser characteristic comparisons one-to-one, [the performance gap] is bad for Netscape,'' he said. "However, when comparing the two browsers as a whole, it doesn't knock Netscape from the running.''