Netscape renaissance: AOL to release browser update

The Netscape Web browser may not be dead after all. After being written off by industry observers last year, America Online (AOL) plans to release an update to the Netscape Internet software package as early as next month.

The update appears part to be a broader effort by AOL to revitalize the Netscape brand it acquired in a US$4.2 billion deal in 1998. AOL is also testing a new Netscape Desktop Navigator product and in January launched the Netscape Internet service, a low-cost Internet service provider.

The Netscape update will replace the aging version 7.1, released in mid-2003. The new release, which could come as early as next month, will likely be called 7.2 and will be based on version 1.7 of Mozilla, an upcoming release of the Mozilla Internet application suite, a source familiar with the product plans said.

An AOL spokesman contacted Thursday hadn't gotten back to IDG News Service with comments by Friday afternoon.

Netscape 7.1 is based on Mozilla 1.4, which was first released in June last year. A first beta of Mozilla 1.7 became available last month, according to the Mozilla Web site. The Mozilla bundle includes a browser, e-mail and newsgroup client as well as a chat client and Web page editor and offers features such as tabbed browsing and pop-up blocking.

Analysts had said that the death knell was sounding for the Netscape browser after AOL last year laid off essentially all of its Netscape software developers and ended development work on the Mozilla browser technology.

Development work was taken over by the Mozilla open source project, which was originally started in early 1998 by Netscape Communications Corp. and continued when AOL acquired Netscape later that year. Last year the people behind Mozilla created a foundation, largely funded by a $2 million pledge from AOL, to build, support and promote Mozilla products.

In addition to a browser suite update, AOL has quietly started beta testing a new product called the Netscape Desktop Navigator that offers access to localized Web content -- based on the user's zip code -- through a round user interface that resembles a coaster. The beta version of the Netscape Desktop Navigator is available for download at: http://navigator-stage.netscape.com/

The center of the coaster contains an Internet search bar, news headlines and weather while the edges are buttons for pulling up various kinds of information from the Web, including movie and TV times, phone books, maps, personals and shopping.

Information shown in the Netscape Desktop Navigator is provided by AOL and partners such as InfoSpace Inc. The information first appears in a screen that folds down over the coaster, but another click will open the user's default Web browser, which could be Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer.

The updated browser bundle and the Desktop Navigator will likely be offered as a bundle, said Richard Doherty, research director at The Envisioneering Group Corp. in Seaford, New York. Doherty said he first heard that an update to the Netscape browser is in the works from former AOL employees.

"I believe it will be a super download: you can have Netscape 7.2 and add on Desktop Navigator," he said.

Netscape was the most popular browser in the early years of the Web. However, its market share started crumbling when Microsoft Corp. introduced Internet Explorer in the mid-nineties. The acquisition of Netscape by Microsoft rival AOL and a lengthy antitrust trial could not change the browser's fortune.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer held 96 percent of the browser market in March 2004, leaving just 4 percent to be divided between Netscape, Apple Computer Inc.'s Safari and other browsers including Opera, from Opera Software ASA and Mozilla, according to San Diego-based Web tracking company WebSideStory Inc.

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Joris Evers

IDG News Service
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