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ISSUE 581: New economy- Dec 12 2000

The high-tech office


New version of Netscape is not yet ready for the big time

I like to root for the underdog. Take Netscape, the company (now owned by AOL) that a few years ago dominated the market for Web browsers, if we can speak of "market" for a product that most users get for free. A few years ago, Netscape's browser had an 80 to 90 per cent market share, while Microsoft's then-upstart Internet Explorer struggled to get what was left over. Today, with Internet Explorer bundled with both Windows and Mac operating systems, these positions are pretty much reversed.

In order to jumpstart program development, Netscape "open-sourced" its code. The Mozilla project enabled any interested programmer to look at the company's source code, and make modifications and improvements. The Mozilla team quickly realized that the existing code was a mess, and that it was easier to throw it away and start over than to try and fix it. Still, their product, a browser engine called Gecko, has taken years of development.

The result is the recently released Netscape 6. (Observant readers may note that the previous version was Netscape 4.x. Where's Version 5? Officially, it was an aborted development project. The cynical may suspect it's an attempt by Netscape to appear one-up on Microsoft, whose Internet Explorer is still in its fifth generation.)

There are some nice things about Netscape 6. Let's start with the installation. You download a relatively small (under 1 MB) stub. Running it allows you to select the parts of the program that you really want. It then goes on to download and install just the selected features.

The browser features a new attractive look, but it's theme-based. If you prefer the look of the last generation Netscape, it's just a theme away, as are an increasing number of other downloadable themes. There are some nice interface features, such as a subtle triangle next to the Back button which drops down a list of recently visited pages. The browser displays Web pages quickly, quicker than older Netscape versions or Internet Explorer in my unscientific tests. And Netscape claims it's more "standards-based" than the competition, meaning that properly designed Web pages should display as their authors intended.

Nevertheless, I've removed Netscape 6 from the 10 computers I installed it on, reverting to an older Netscape version.

Subjectively, the new version feels like it takes forever to load. On two otherwise identical 600 MHz systems, Netscape 6 took over a minute to start up and load a home page, compared to a brisk 15 seconds for version 4.5. If you often start up a browser to follow e-mail links this difference is painful.

Netscape 4.x included a very useful print preview function. Somewhere in the evolution to version 6, this got lost. Ironically, Microsoft's Internet Explorer only gained print preview in the latest version 5.5. Similarly, every browser version around lets you select the address by clicking in the address field, but not Netscape 6. And the new plug-in model needs not-yet-available new versions of standards like Adobe Acrobat and Quicktime.

While some users of Netscape Messenger, the e-mail component, will welcome its new capabilities for working with multiple e-mail accounts, its lack of LDAP support means it won't work with many corporate networks.

Sadly, when I went to remove Netscape 6, the uninstall program failed on all the test systems. I had to delete the program's folders manually, doubtlessly leaving a bunch of junk settings behind.

Coming from behind as Netscape is, I'd like to give it the benefit of the doubt. These sorts of software misbehaviours might be acceptable in a try-at-your-own pre-release beta version. But with its official release, Netscape 6 has been declared ready for the big time. It's not. u

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan