New Netscape embraces Firefox, IE

AOL releases Netscape browser prototype bristling with RSS feeds, tabs, plenty of Netscape branding--and the option to surf in IE. Image: Netscape's new browser

In the market for a hybrid engine? Netscape's new Web browser might be just the ticket.

As of 8 a.m. PST Tuesday, Netscape fans were test-driving a prototype Netscape browser that runs on two different browsing engines: the Mozilla Foundation's Gecko engine, which powers up the Mozilla, Firefox and older Netscape browsers, and Microsoft's Internet Explorer engine, which many consider the de facto Web standard.

The prototype's release follows earlier reports that the AOL unit planned a comeback for the Netscape browser and portal, as well as indications that the new browser would include some surprises under the hood.

News.context

What's new:
Netscape is beginning testing of a prototype browser that runs two different browsing engines--Mozilla's Gecko and Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Bottom line:
The ability to let people switch between IE and Gecko could help Netscape capitalize on the success of upstart Firefox.

More stories on Firefox

It also follows a years-long pattern of browser bet-hedging in which AOL has maintained its Netscape browser unit while supporting Microsoft's competing IE browser.

As part of the settlement of its antitrust dispute with Microsoft, AOL renewed its license to use IE with its proprietary online service. AOL in 2001 briefly considered browsing software that would switch between engines. More recently, AOL said it would build a standalone browser based on IE.

AOL's motivation in resuscitating the Netscape browser comes down to the same reason it acquired Netscape in the first place: the portal. AOL expects to reap revenue from the free browser by directing more people to Netscape.com, just as Microsoft has turned its MSN portal into a Web heavyweight in large part through Internet Explorer.

The ability to let people switch between IE and Gecko could help Netscape capitalize on the success of Firefox. While IE comes preinstalled on the vast majority of computers and many Web sites are written specifically to work with the Microsoft browser, Mozilla-based browsers have won a following as IE has battled chronic security woes.

Microsoft's market share slide
Tallies released last week by Dutch Web traffic analyst OneStat.com showed that IE had dipped below the 90 percent market share mark for the first time in years, confirming a downward trend seen in other surveys released since millions of Web surfers started trying out Firefox. OneStat's survey indicated that Firefox has picked up what market share IE has lost.

Now Netscape has to find a way to differentiate itself both from the IE browser that comes default on nearly all computers and from the Firefox browser that originated at Netscape.

Before it was acquired by AOL, Netscape launched the Mozilla open-source effort that produced Firefox. AOL owner Time Warner spun off the Mozilla Foundation as a nonprofit last year.

With Tuesday's release, Netscape is betting that ensuring site compatibility through the IE option, providing general surfing security with the default Gecko engine, and offering an easier interface for some of Firefox's more advanced features will make the browser an attractive option for mainstream Web surfers.

"What this release allows us to do is offer the compatibility of having IE if Web sites are optimized for IE, but it also allows the user to have the control and security of Mozilla browsers," said a source close to Netscape's browser effort. "We've taken all the advanced capabilities available in other browsers and made them more intuitive and usable."

The Netscape prototype, available to people who signed up in recent weeks on the Netscape portal, doesn't actually include a copy of

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