First look at Netscape 7.0

Opening this week is "Browser Wars: Episode 7." Like a sequel lumbering into the cineplex, Netscape Communications's latest preview of its Netscape 7.0 browser will battle with Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

The browser-building AOL Time Warner Inc. division has ratcheted its software with some nifty new features and even some copycat Internet Explorer tricks. A cursory review of the beta version of Netscape 7.0 running on the Windows XP operating system was stable compared to prerelease versions of Netscape 6.x. But download Netscape 7.0 Preview Release 1 at your own risk, recognizing there are reasons it's still in beta testing.

Netscape expects to ship the final version this summer, says Catherine Corre, Netscape communications director.

New and Noteworthy

Highlights of the new features include Tabbed Browsing; e-mail management tools; and Radio@Netscape, which hooks into AOL's Spinner online music division. The Netscape 7.0 preview release improves what felt like unfinished work with the Netscape 6.x browser. For example, Netscape has restored the Print Preview feature, dropped from Netscape 6.x. It also gave Download Manager a meaningful upgrade, and added support for Site Icons that appear in the URL field and alongside bookmarks.

On the downside, installing the preview of Netscape 7.0 over earlier versions of Netscape caused some e-mail confusion. Custom mailbox folders did not appear in Netscape 7.0's Netscape Mail client, and other messages showed up in the wrong folders. Installing the beta Netscape 7.0 browser on a PC that had no earlier versions of Netscape avoided the problems, however.

Tabbed Browsing is one of the best new features of Netscape 7.0. With tabs, you can view multiple Web pages within one browser window without cluttering your desktop, and just tab among them. It's a nifty tool for comparing deals across shopping sites, or for grouping several favorite Web pages. You can even save your tabs--under bookmarks (not exactly intuitive). Or you can right-click a Web link and save the tab.

The Netscape 7.0 Preview is available in three versions: a 9MB download for the browser only; a 12.6MB download to install the recommended components, including mail, newsgroup reader, and instant messaging software; and a 30.8MB version crammed with audio and video plug-ins along with Sun Microsystems Inc. Sun Java 2.

E-Mail Applause

E-mail junkies who store old messages like pack rats will appreciate Netscape 7.0's attention to Netscape Mail.

Netscape steals a design feature from Microsoft, adding a pop-up e-mail alert to your system tray. Within the Netscape Mail client, you can apply Custom Labels to e-mail messages. To group or prioritize messages, you just right-click a message and tag it red, blue, or green.

The mail client has also gained a search field. When you're looking for an old message, just start typing the sender's e-mail address or the message's subject line, and the in-box view winnows down to the message you seek.

Unearthed from previous versions of Netscape is a nifty filter feature that can help you pare back spam. To stop unsolicited e-mail from a particular sender, you need only click on the offender's e-mail address. A filter dialog box guides you through the process of automatically trashing all future messages from that sender.

As for the Mystery of the Missing Folders, Netscape representatives call the e-mail problems with the beta "unique." They say the glitch occurred because the test system had both Netscape 4.7 and 6.2 installed. Upon installation, the Netscape 7.0 preview couldn't determine which old Netscape e-mail folders to associate with.

Parental Help

On the communication front, Netscape 7.0's instant messaging client supports both ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger, although the networks remain separate. Also noteworthy is the new capability to execute searches by highlighting text embedded on a Web page and selecting "Web Search." The process connects you to your default search engine.

New features aside, Netscape still faces a hefty challenge to regain the title of champion browser. The various versions of IE command 93 percent of the global browser market, according to WebSideStory. But signs show the underdog stands a fighting chance.

AOL Time Warner, Netscape's parent, has hinted it may drop IE from its America Online client in favor of Netscape. AOL is evaluating the Netscape 7.0 browser's core Gecko engine, says Sol Goldfarb, director of Netscape product marketing.

With AOL's powerful market presence--numbering 34 million registered users--Netscape could be poised for a comeback if it replaces IE's role for AOL users.

The courts might help. Netscape has filed civil suit against Microsoft, alleging the software maker harmed Netscape with anticompetitive practices related to the Windows operating system. The lawsuit relies on a federal district court ruling that Microsoft abused its monopoly power by cutting deals with PC manufacturers that ultimately hindered sales of Netscape's previous Netscape Navigator browser.

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