Netscape releases buffed 6.1 browser

Netscape Communcations Corp. is back with another update: The Netscape 6.1 browser is available for download free of charge. You'll notice marked stability improvements and compatibility with more Web sites over earlier beta versions.

While Netscape has polished its browser's user interface, most of the changes from the last beta edition of this version, released in mid-June, are under the hood.

One notable addition is the Quick Launch feature, which speeds the time it takes to load the browser. Quick Launch works by giving you the option to load Netscape in your PC's system memory when you boot up your PC.

The interface has improved auto-completion functions in text boxes, and expanded search engine options. The AOL Time Warner Inc. subsidiary has built emoticons into the included instant messaging client, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Features that better help you manage online privacy and security are now easier to find, say Netscape representatives.

Other new functions in Netscape 6.1 (previewed in beta versions) include a History tab on the My Sidebar tool to track your surfing, and a central password manager. Now, an e-mail message can also sport the sender's AIM name as well as an e-mail address, and indicate whether they're online when you read the message.

Netscape 6.1 operates on a wide range of platforms, from PCs to Internet appliances. It is available for the Windows, Macintosh, and Linux operating systems.

Browser War Nostalgia

Netscape's latest release comes just as Microsoft Corp. readies its final release of the Internet Explorer 6.0 browser. But experts no longer consider the once-dominant Netscape as a threat to Microsoft's ownership of the browser market.

"The browser war is all but over," says Geoff Johnston, vice president of product marketing for WebSideStory's StatMarket. "Microsoft won." Today, 86 percent of Web surfers use a version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, according to StatMarket. Only 13.5 percent now use Netscape's browser.

Analysts agree the fabled Browser War of the mid-90s is merely a nostalgic footnote in the history of the Web. Today, browsers do not matter when it comes to Web domination, says Chris Silvo, a research associate analyst with IDC.

Netscape is shooting rubber bands at an oncoming tank with its Netscape browser, he suggests. On the other hand, AOL's massive subscriber base poses the real competitive threat to Microsoft.

"The browser is just a piece of software," Silva says. "These companies really just want to own your digital identity." He says AOL is satisfied to take your money for membership, no matter what your browser predilection.

Bigger Battles Loom

Meanwhile, Microsoft Windows XP and its .Net and HailStorm strategies are positioning to challenge AOL for PC users' attention. HailStorm is a code name for Microsoft's suite of integrated consumer services that are part of its .Net strategy.

Microsoft's goal is to get you to use its ancillary applications such as MSN Messenger and its MSN online service. AOL shares the same ambitions with its AIM Instant Messaging software and its Netscape.com portal. Each hopes you'll join their respected fiefdoms, Silva says.

"The browser is part of the digital sidewalk, not the main attraction," he says.

Hands on the Update

Netscape loyalists and those who fear Microsoft domination may consider Netscape 6.1 an honorable ally.

With this release, Netscape's development efforts finally pay off. That's a contrast to earlier versions of the 6.x browser, which were soundly thrashed for being too buggy.

In my informal test, Netscape 6.1 worked on a number of sites where it previously choked, like Dialpad.com and the Games link on Netscape's own home page. For those improvements, Netscape credits extensive outreach to the Web development community to make sites compatible with its browser.

The Netscape 6.1 browser isn't perfect. (What software is?) Microsoft's MSN Gaming Zone doesn't support Netscape 6.1. The latest Macromedia Shockwave Player 8.5 doesn't work properly with it. And if you visit the Web site of Netscape parent company AOL and select the AIM Express tool, you're warned of potential browser incompatibilities.

Surfing aside, some features in Netscape Communicator 4.7 didn't make it into Netscape 6.1. Print Preview has disappeared, and so has support for encrypted e-mail. Nor can you drag a Web address from the address bar to the Bookmark menu.

But what Netscape omitted it has made up for with features like My Sidebars, instant messaging, and support for multiple e-mail accounts. Those were initially implemented in Netscape 6 and made more stable in Netscape 6.1, and met with approval in PCWorld.com reviews of Netscape 6.

Netscape's Options

Netscape 6.1 is the newest in the browser family, and it will apparently continue to have many siblings. Netscape says it plans to continue supporting the business-friendly 4.x family of Netscape Communicator browsers, which is widely viewed as far more stable than its Netscape 6 successor.

Compatibility issues have plagued Netscape 6 ever since the Netscape browser was rewritten from the ground up in an open source environment. It took Netscape two years and six months to develop Netscape 6. The browser is based on the Gecko engine and was developed with input from independent Internet programmers in an open source project called Mozilla.

"Although no browser is perfect, Opera, Netscape, and Microsoft have all shown their commitment to supporting to W3C recommended standards," Jeffrey Zeldman, group leader at the Web Standards Project. He hopes the support for standards will be an example for Web development tools.

"It's time for developers to use the standards ... or at least offer them as options so that we can build sites that are standards-compliant because the browsers will let us do it," Zeldman says. Standards are supposed to permit a Web site to look the same in multiple browsers.

WebSideStory's Johnston suggests that day might be distant. He says developers he's talked to are eager for Netscape to lose more market share so they can develop Web sites for only one browser: Internet Explorer.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Tom Spring

Computerworld

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