Netscape 6

Netscape is finally back on the Mac, with a new version of its browser software. Version 6 is the first major release since 1998’s Communicator 4.5 in . In the meantime, Microsoft has established supreme dominance in the browser wars. Following a routing by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) on the PC platform, Netscape staged a Dunkirk-like retreat to AOL and regrouped its forces. Netscape 5 spent two years in the company’s skunkworks, and as the plaything of the open source community through mozilla.org, but without any official release. Now, with Netscape 6 (N6), it’s D-Day. Installation is simple and well handled, although it’s hard to determine where the installation ends and the registration for Netcenter begins. This means if your not careful, you’ll find yourself with a netscape.com email address and being barraged by promotional mailings. New look
The browser, Navigator, is the core application for most users, and has undergone a major interface redesign, with a sleek futuristic look – called a Theme – a refined top bar with only five buttons for forward, back, reload, stop and print, and the location bar. Access to the other components of the Netscape suite are via a little control panel in the bottom left hand corner. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I certainly prefer it to IE5’s highly derivative iMac look-alike approach. Under the bonnet, so to speak, Netscape is powered by Gecko. It’s the result of extensive R-&-D by Netscape, building the architecture from the ground up to try to ensure a small, fast and compact application that bucks the bloatware trend that has become a feature of the browser wars. However, it’s hard to see the evidence of this – the minimum memory requirements for N6 are 16MB compared to just 7MB for IE 4.5, though you could add another 6MB for Outlook Express. The actual Netscape app itself is a mean 227Kb, but the Netscape folder as a whole is over 28MB compared to 4.5MB for IE. This would be irrelevant if the application was faster to launch and run than IE, but there’s little evidence to support this. And Netscape is still crash-prone, bringing up the talkback agent application with annoying regularity. Netscape 6 possesses the very latest Java support, thanks to the Open JVM Interface (OJI). OJI lets you download and use new OJI-compliant Java Virtual Machines within the browser the moment they become available. Gecko is being maintained as an open standard, with Netscape hoping that it will be adopted across the whole range of internet-enabled devices – such as PDAs, handhelds, set-top boxes and mobile phones. It will certainly help Netscape’s cause if it can establish its browser as the open source standard across all platforms. Pick-up the tab
Two of the most obvious features that have been added in N6 are MySidebar and Customizable Skins. MySidebar will seem pretty old hat to IE users – it’s a collapsible side panel that can be personalized to display the latest news, a search window, buddy lists, tips and stocks. Basically, this is a way to get third-party content providers on screen as much as possible. You can add more tabs through the Netscape.com Web site. A cool tab that should have been included by default is WebCalendar, which allows you to use your browser as a scheduling tool as well. Customizable skins are an infectious disease that is spreading across most software releases these days. Known as Themes in N6, they do not permit the wholesale alteration of the user interface, but help to conserve some consistency. Having AOL as a parent organization means that Instant Messaging (IM) is fully integrated into Netscape 6, with Buddy Lists also part of MySidebar. A neat feature, if you’re into IM, is that when you send an email you can instantly see which of your Buddies are also online. The email application is fine, and also contains a means of accessing newsgroups, and managing multiple accounts and mailboxes. But, it’s not as sophisticated as Outlook Express – or Entourage. As a consolidated browser platform that works virtually identically across Mac, Windows and Linux, and with the same underlying technology applicable to other Internet devices, N6 is a boon for Web developers and designers. It boasts to be the most standards compatible browser available. Developers can structure content using HTML 4.0 and XML, format it using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) level 1, position it using CSS2, access it from JavaScript using the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) DOM level 1, and represent lists of resources using Resource Description Framework. JavaScript 1.5 makes it possible to create interactive-Web content and rich Web applications using these standards. Having said that, every browser release means an extra platform to test on, and it’s disappointing to find sites that work in Netscape Communicator 4.7 fail in N6.

OUR VERDICT

Netscape 6 is a good product. In many ways, it sets the standards for the next generation of Web applications. But, whether it will be enough to recover some of the territory lost to Microsoft remains to be seen.

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