Netscape has lost the browser market war. Its market share has fallen from 87 per cent in 1996 to 36 per cent today, far behind Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, according to Zona Research.

Netscape is plotting a new course with Communicator 5.0. But, Netscape won't give a shipping date, or details about features. However, this week it promised developers a minor upgrade, Communicator 4.71, in December.

Communicator 5.0 will be "groundbreaking", says Eric Krock, senior product manager for Netscape Communicator. He says Communicator 5.0 will restore Netscape's market share by offering speed, a smaller size, and more new features.

Netscape representatives would offer few details. It has been confirmed that Communicator 5.0 will support Extensible User Interface Language, or XUL. XUL lets developers use common Web building languages, rather than computer-coding languages to create a browser's graphical user interface, including menu items, buttons, and the address bar.

But, Microsoft embraced standards from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in IE5. IE has a perceived advantage because of its close ties to the Windows operating system, says Steve Robins, a Yankee Group analyst.

Netscape disagrees. Close ties to Windows mean less as applications move to the platform-agnostic Internet. Netscape also states that Communicator 5.0 adopts W3C standards more aggressively than IE5.

Surface detail While Netscape guards its Communicator 5.0 plans closely, some details have surfaced:

The combination browser, email client, and Web editor will be under 5MB - roughly half the size of Communicator 4.7. This reverses the "bloatware trend," says Chris Saito, Netscape's senior director of client product marketing.

Communicator 5.0 will be 10 to 20 per cent faster at rendering Web pages. Netscape credits the Gecko 4MB rendering engine. Gecko is part of Netscape's Mozilla Organization project, which shepherds open source browser development. Netscape made Communicator's code public a year ago. Since then, thousands of developers worldwide have tweaked it, added features, and fixed problems. Netscape plans to incorporate the best modifications.

Netscape promises that Communicator 5.0 is in complete compliance with W3C standards for XML, Document Object Model, HTML 4.0, Cascading Style Sheets, and Resource Description Framework.

Reports also suggest that Netscape has folded the America Online instant messaging client directly into a new left-hand pane of the browser interface, but the company won't confirm that new look. But, Netscape partner Net2Phone says its voice-over-Internet-protocol service is a featured "button" on the browser.

Also, if the most recent open source version of the Mozilla browser foreshadows features of Communicator 5.0, you can expect more attention to searching and accessing Web content.

The Mozilla browser has a "My Panels" feature that opens a left-hand frame that you can customize with your bookmarks, local news, headlines, and travel information. It also has expanded search functions so you can scour the Web and your local hard disk, and includes a virtual wallet.

Netscape slowed the pace on Communicator 5.0 at the advice of partner developers, who expressed more interest in meeting open standards than in keeping pace with Microsoft. So Netscape started rewriting Communicator from scratch.

Close integration with the operating system may not be a technical advantage, but Microsoft's strategy of bundling IE free with Windows did, in fact, eat into Netscape's market. This is reinforced by Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson’s recent findings of fact during the Microsoft trial.