Nine months after Netscape released the Communicator source code to the public domain, the company has unveiled a developers' preview release called Gecko. This release is a much faster and slimmer version of Netscape's rendering engine, the mechanism at the heart of Navigator that translates HTML code into what you see in your browser.
Gecko's speed in rendering tables and other Web objects was received enthusiastically by a roomful of Web development professionals attending the Builder.Com conference taking place in San Francisco this week.
Gecko is not Navigator 5 -- it still lacks new user interface features and looks just like Navigator 4.x. But its unprecedented speed and size (about 900KB) clearly indicate the directions Netscape's flagship product is taking. The engine is based on approved open standards such as HTML 4.0, cascading style sheets 1, and extensible markup language, and even Navigator's user interface will be written in XML, according to company representatives. This should make it possible for users to easily customise the interface using standard Web-authoring tools.
Netscape officials say they were pleasantly surprised to see how quickly Gecko progressed on Mozilla.Org, Netscape's open-source site. They were especially delighted to receive ready-made modules from leading developers.
Gecko will be available to third-party developers by the beginning of 1999. Some companies have already announced plans to implement the Gecko rendering engine in their core products. Examples include ICQ, the popular instant messaging tool now owned by America Online, and NeoPlanet, a company that offers a portal-like Web browser based on the Internet Explorer engine. The Gecko engine could also be ideal for handheld devices, though no plans to integrate it have been announced by Pilot or Windows CE developers.
Communicator/Navigator 5.0 should be available in a public beta version by next quarter. Judging by the warm reception here, you can expect to see "Optimised for Gecko" buttons on Web sites in the coming months, which could drive up the popularity of Netscape's products to a level not seen since Navigator 2 came out in beta in 1994.