The changes are dramatic indeed, including a slimmed-down profile (the download is less than half the size of Communicator 4.7's), a slicked-up user interface, the first third-party America Online e-mail client and an intriguing combination of Web search tools and instant messaging.
A look at Netscape 6's first preview release reveals that the intention is to get back to browser basics. For starters, it's compact in a way browsers haven't been since the glory years of Navigator 2: the full download of Netscape 6 tops out at 8.5MB, compared to 18MB for the bloated Communicator 4.7 and 29.4MB for the soup-to-nuts IE5.
Netscape 6 got thin by dropping Communicator's least-used components (when was the last time you invoked Netcaster?) and by abandoning Communicator's HTML rendering engine in favour of the newer and nimbler Gecko browser technology. Gecko is not only smaller but is also faster than its Communicator predecessor: given equal network conditions, complicated Web pages load more quickly with Gecko, although we didn't put this early version to formal tests.
The attractive interface offers lots more customisation options than does the competition. The most prominent is My Sidebar, a collection of small, tabbed windows (Netscape calls them tabs) on the left side of the screen that hold Web information and applications you want to access with a minimum of fuss. Netscape 6 comes preloaded with a handful of tabs - customised minipages like the Web clipping service provided for Web-enabled mobile phones. Netscape provides tabs for CNN headlines and stock quotes from your Netcenter portfolio, and you'll be able to get more tabs from Web sites that offer them. Netscape says more than 400 tabs will be available at launch. If you don't want to see My Sidebar, it collapses with a simple mouse click on the side of its frame; no labyrinthine menu item check-offs are required.
Netscape 6 is the first major update to Netscape's browser since AOL acquired the company in 1998, and several features reflect AOL's influence. For example, one My Sidebar tab is the Buddy List, which lets you send instant messages to other AOL/Netscape Instant Messenger subscribers from within the browser - and not just the browser on your computer. Buddy Lists are now stored on Netscape's servers, so you can access them from any IM-equipped PC.
Even cooler: when you compose messages in Netscape Mail, the software checks for recipients who are on your Buddy List; if they're online, you can send the e-mail as an instant message and start a chat session, perhaps circumventing some time-consuming e-mail exchanges.
Netscape Mail delivers several other new goodies, not the least of which is the ability to send and receive your AOL e-mail (no big surprise, of course, since Netscape is now an AOL subsidiary). You can now manage multiple AOL and POP3 e-mail accounts, with separate inboxes and folders for each one. That feature, which most major e-mail programs don't offer, is useful if you'd like to keep your personal and business e-mail completely separate without resorting to filters.
A popular feature of most newer e-mail programs is also included: when you read a message, Netscape automatically stores the sender's address so you can send them mail later by simply typing the name in the To: field when you start composing. Filters to sort mail into folders as it arrives would have been nice, but otherwise Netscape Mail is a very usable basic e-mail client.
Netscape has tried to make searching as easy as possible, but the result is mixed. You can perform certain specific searches by using special keywords. For example, if you're shopping for something, type shop or buy along with the name of the item in the URL bar and Netscape will bring back results from AOL's shopping search engine. Similarly, typing quote in front of a company name brings up the price of its stock.
You can hit a button to get additional results, which start with a list of sites reviewed in Netscape's Open Directory project - a Yahoo-like catalogue with write-ups by volunteer editors. Those results also appear in the Search tab of My Sidebar, where they remain until you search on new keywords. You can refine your search by category - Art, Science, Reference and so on. Eventually, you get another button that lets you search with Google, a popular and effective search engine.
Additionally, you can configure Netscape to search several sites at once, but some of those sites aren't search engines (MapQuest and Netscape Jobs, for example). Most annoyingly, you can't choose a different search engine as the default; you can only bookmark it.
Netscape 6's security options represent a significant improvement over Communicator 4.7's, and they match or exceed those in IE5. You can automate site log-ins via a master password and set cookie controls on a site-by-site, per-cookie basis. Other components and features include Composer, a serviceable Web-page authoring tool along the lines of Front Page Express; Net2Phone software for Internet phone calls; and a translation command for conjuring up computer-generated versions of Web pages in foreign languages (this wasn't ready for testing in my pre-pre-release copy).
Not all smooth sailing
Preview release 1 isn't without the usual clumps of beta bugs and there are a couple of built-in irritants. In a package with so many new features, there's a glaring lack of tool tips to help you learn. It's not always obvious how to use the new customisation options. And now that AOL's Buddy Lists are part of the package, why not import the lists people already have on their hard drives? These are the sorts of complaints that discourage people who experiment with new software, and Netscape 6 may prove no exception.
Netscape 6 is launching simultaneously for the Windows, Macintosh and Linux platforms. The Gecko engine has no serious competition yet from Microsoft's Windows CE in the Web appliance universe, where Linux is rapidly gaining popularity. So, even if Netscape 6 isn't your desktop browser choice, don't be surprised to see it on a TV set or mall kiosk in the next couple of years. And if you've stayed with Netscape, you have some good new reasons for sticking to your guns. This lean, smart browsing machine should be a powerful contender.