A Peek at Communicator 5.0

Once the beast Mozilla roared, but now America Online's Netscape Communications division just grumbles.

Netscape has slid from owning the browser market with an 87 per cent share in 1996 to trailing with a current 36 per cent share, behind nemesis Microsoft's Internet Explorer, according to Zona Research.

Now Netscape is preparing to pull up its anchor and set a new course with Communicator 5.0. Netscape won't give a ship date or details about features. However, this week it promised developers a minor upgrade, Communicator 4.71, in December, quelling rumours of 5.0's debut.

Communicator 5.0 will be "groundbreaking", says Eric Krock, senior product manager for Netscape Communicator. He says Communicator 5.0 will restore Netscape's market share by offering speed, a smaller size, services, support for standards, and chat functions.

Netscape representatives would offer few specifics. However, they did confirm that Communicator 5.0 will support Extensible User Interface Language, or XUL. XUL lets developers use common Web building languages rather than computer coding languages to create a browser's graphical user interface, including menu items, buttons, and the address bar.

Too little, too late?

Communicator 5.0 had better be outstanding, or it may share the Titanic's fate, analysts say. Mounting scepticism of Netscape's ability to deliver and its slow adoption of Web standards has even some loyal developers considering jumping ship.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has embraced standards from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in IE5. And IE has an advantage because of its close ties to the Windows operating system, says Steve Robins, a Yankee Group analyst.

Netscape's Krock disagrees. Close ties to Windows matter less as applications move to the platform-agnostic Internet. And he maintains that Communicator 5.0 adopts W3C standards more aggressively than IE5.

Just as the Mosaic browser revolutionised the Web in 1993, today the focus is instant messaging and tomorrow we'll want entirely new standards, such as XML, Krock says. Netscape is positioning Communicator as a window to hundreds of Web-based applications.

"Faster, smaller, smarter, compliant"

Netscape guards its Communicator 5.0 plans more tightly than Fort Knox, but a few details have surfaced. Here's what Netscape reveals:

Communicator went on a diet. The combination browser, e-mail client, and Web editor will be under 5MB -- roughly half the size of Communicator 4.7. This reverses the "bloat-ware trend," says Chris Saito, Netscape's senior director of client product marketing.

Lean brings speed. Communicator 5.0 will be 10 to 20 per cent faster at rendering Web pages. Netscape credits the Gecko 4MB rendering engine. Gecko is part of Netcape's Mozilla Organisation project, which shepherds open source browser development. Netscape made Communicator's code public a year ago, and thousands of developers worldwide have tweaked it, added features, and fixed problems. Netscape plans to incorporate the best modifications.

Standards are accepted. Krock says Communicator 5.0 is more compliant than IE5 and criticises IE 5's "poor adoption of standards". He promises that Communicator 5.0 is in complete compliance with W3C standards for XML, Document Object Model, HTML 4.0, Cascading Style Sheets, and Resource Description Framework.

New platforms. Netscape is working with Nokia and Intel on an open standards-based browser for an Internet appliance and other form factors.

Communicator 5.0 borrows from AOL

Reports suggest that Netscape has folded the America Online instant messaging client directly into a new left-hand pane of the browser interface, but the company won't confirm that new look. However, Netscape partner Net2Phone says its voice-over-Internet-protocol service is a featured "button" on the browser.

Netscape says it will more heavily leverage AOL properties, including shopping sites, from within the browser. Netcenter services are also being more tightly woven into the browser, along with many "modular" add-ons that will let users tailor the browser's appearance.

If the most recent open source version of the Mozilla browser foreshadows features of Communicator 5.0, you can expect more attention to searching and accessing Web content.

The Mozilla browser has a My Panels feature that opens a left-hand frame that you can customise with your bookmarks, local news, headlines, and travel information. It also has expanded search functions so you can scour the Web and your local hard disk, and includes a virtual wallet.

Nearing the next round

Netscape slowed the pace on Communicator 5.0 at the advice of partner developers, Krock notes. They expressed more interest in meeting open standards than in keeping pace with Microsoft, he says, so Netscape started rewriting Communicator from scratch.

Close integration with the operating system may not be a technical advantage, but Microsoft's strategy of bundling IE free with Windows did, in fact, eat into Netscape's market, Saito says.

"I think [recent market share numbers] reinforce the findings of fact by Judge [Thomas Penfield] Jackson," he adds. Still, with little more than Mozilla to show for its recent work, Netscape is currently releasing only rhetoric in the browser brawl with Microsoft.

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