No truce yet in browser wars

Less than a month after Microsoft released a Mac version of Internet Explorer 5.0, Netscape came out with the first preview release of its new browser. The company plans a second preview release in summer 2000. The America Online subsidiary clearly has high hopes for Netscape 6, with designs on steering users away from Microsoft's browser.

That's a tall order. Explorer reigns as the most widely used browser, with a market share of nearly 70 percent. Netscape, which once boasted a 90 percent share, has seen its hold dwindle to 30 percent.

Enter Netscape 6, which offers a slimmer 5.5MB download -about half the size of Netscape Navigator 4.08's- and the new Gecko rendering engine. Gecko is expected to speed up browsing by displaying tables more quickly and resizing pages instantly. More important to Netscape and AOL, the Gecko technology can be used across multiple platforms, making it easy to power internet devices such as the ones AOL plans to release with Gateway by the end of 2000.

Other new features in Netscape 6 include the ability to launch searches directly from the browser tool bar. Internet Explorer 5.0 provides a similar search feature, as well as a search tab that appears on the left side of the browser window.

Netscape 6 also features My Sidebar, a companion browser on the left side of the Netscape screen that gives users quick access to stock quotes, news headlines, bookmarks, and other common online items. The My Sidebar minibrowser already includes more than 500 tabs from third-party providers such as CNN, the New York Times, and eBay.

Users will be able to customise the appearance of Netscape 6 using the Gecko-powered Themes feature, but a customisable interface won't be available until the next preview release comes out.

At first look, though, what is most striking about Netscape 6 is access to a number of applications through the browser. Netscape 6 offers links to the Instant Messenger chat feature, a Netscape Mail email client, and the Netscape Composer HTML-authoring tool. At the bottom of the page, users will find links directing them to Netscape-sponsored channels.

It's as if Netscape is conceding that it can't compete head-to-head with Microsoft's entrenched browser. Instead, Netscape seems to be trying to drum up customers with AOL-like services and Netscape-themed content in its new browser.

Netscape 6 still faces a formidable rival in Internet Explorer 5.0. The new Mac version of Explorer is powered by a rendering engine, code-named Tasman, that displays pages more consistently across platforms.

And it may be some time before AOL members will be able to use Netscape 6 as their browser of choice. An agreement between Microsoft and AOL makes Explorer the default browser for the online service. Although that deal expires later this year, AOL says dropping Explorer is not a sure thing.

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Philip Michaels

PC World

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