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Netscape ups ante with new browser

The preview release hints at what is to come in the final version due later this year.

By PETER H. LEWIS, New York Times, published April 17, 2000


Netscape is back. It never really went away, of course. But more than a year has passed -- a generation in Internet time -- since Netscape, the weakened Internet software company, was acquired by America Online, leading to an exodus of top executives and programmers.

Now Netscape has released a preview version of its next-generation browser software, Netscape 6.0. The final version is not expected for about six months, but this first trial version, which is available free for Windows, Macintosh and Linux computers at www.netscape.com, at least indicates that Microsoft's market-leading browser software, Internet Explorer, still has a formidable rival.

There is little chance that Netscape can recapture the desktop browser market from Microsoft, given that Internet Explorer is very good, free and comes with almost every new computer. But Netscape and AOL are betting that the future of computing resides on the Web, not the desktop, and they have made the new browser so that it can run on everything from cell phones to small Internet appliances.

Version 6.0 is spunky, and it streamlines the display of Web pages, which is what browsers are supposed to do. It was rebuilt from the ground up using an open-source Web-page rendering engine called Gecko, named after a small, fast lizard, and it is much more nimble than its immediate predecessor, Netscape 4.7. (Netscape skipped Version 5.0 and went directly to 6.0 because Microsoft is getting ready to release Internet Explorer 5.5, and Netscape wanted to seize the high ground, numerically speaking.)

Version 6.0 also has several novel and handy features, some of which will appeal to America Online users. It handles multiple e-mail accounts in one area of the screen, including AOL mail, and it works with AOL's popular Instant Messaging services.

It has a clever system of file tabs that keep current news and information, not just links to current news and information, at your fingertips. More on the new features in a bit.

Remember, this is pre-release software, which means that there are lots of known bugs in the code. The test version I've been using behaved pretty well most of the time, but there were occasional flurries of "blue screen of death" Windows errors that probably were a result of shaky code.

In other words, this preview version is for thrill seekers only, and it is not a browser you want to rely on for the long term, at least not until the final version is released. If crashing computers scare you, wait for a version that does not have a zero in it.

Also, several interesting and entertaining new features will not be added until the next preview release, such as the ability to change the look of the browser through the use of custom software "skins."

But Preview Version 1 is a cheap, easy and relatively fast to download, and after months of antitrust testimony and court rulings that detailed the company's battles with Microsoft, it is nice to see the Netscape banner still flying.

As a result of a Faustian bargain made before AOL acquired Netscape, however, AOL is contractually obligated to bundle Internet Explorer with its popular online software now used by more than 22-million people. It must be agony for Netscape and AOL folks, especially now that the courts are on the verge of deciding whether to make Microsoft unbundle Internet Explorer from Windows.

The most obvious new feature in Version 6.0 is the addition of a customizable stack of virtual file folders, called My Sidebar, on the left side of the screen. It is basically a mini-browser inside the main browser. Each folder can contain Web content, not just links to Web pages.

So one can click on the tab of the stocks folder and see current stock quotes or click on the news tab and see current headlines, while the main browser window is displaying something else. Netscape says hundreds of custom tabs are being created for things such as auctions, calendars, music files and news.

As might be expected, Netscape 6.0 has some tricks that take specific advantage of popular AOL features such as instant messages and buddy lists. If you are writing an e-mail message to your buddy Waldo, and Waldo is logged on at the same time, a tiny icon appears on-screen. Clicking on the icon opens an instant chat session, which can be a useful alternative to successive volleys of e-mail.

Many people use one program to handle e-mail and another to handle Web browsing. Netscape lets the user collect mail from multiple e-mail accounts, including AOL mail, and display it in one combined in-box. Some people prefer to keep business and personal e-mail accounts separate and they can do that with the new browser, too.

Netscape has improved the search functions of the browser by adopting the Google search engine and by integrating a search function into the main toolbar where one would usually just type Web addresses.

Another welcome feature is better management of Internet cookies, information that many Web sites insert into your computer to track your activities. With Netscape 6.0, the user can easily delete unwanted cookies and decide whether to accept new cookies.

One of the most clever tricks of the new browser is the AutoTranslate command, which, as the name suggests, automatically translates the text on Web sites to and from English, which is handy as the Internet spreads internationally.

The AutoTranslate feature does back-and-forth translation for English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Portuguese. It does not always work well, but it works well enough.

In the grand scheme of things, Netscape 6.0 is probably more significant for the way it is being made, rather than for its features. It is a creature of the open-source software movement, a collaboration of hundreds of independent programmers around the world. Other examples of open-source software include Linux, which has emerged as the most viable challenger to Microsoft's Windows operating system for corporate customers.

The underlying Gecko engine of Netscape 6.0 was designed to work on a variety of operating systems, including Windows, Linux and Apple's Mac OS, and on a variety of devices, such as desktop PCs, televisions (think AOL TV), Internet appliances (such as the ones Gateway is developing with AOL), handheld appliances and phones (think AOL Anywhere).

Meanwhile, Microsoft has finally released Version 5.0 of Internet Explorer for the Macintosh, a year after the Windows version was released. It was worth the wait. The new rendering engine is much faster than earlier versions (Microsoft's is called Tasman, versus Netscape's Gecko). It has improved search features and an Internet Scrapbook feature that allows users to store not just links to pages, but the pages themselves. There is also an Auction Manager that automatically informs you if you have been outbid on an item on eBay, Amazon or Yahoo.

It is nice to see that the browser programmers have stayed just as busy as the lawyers.

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