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Netscape plays catch-up with latest browser

The America Online division inches forward in its effort to catch up to Microsoft with the second preview release of its Web browser.

Netscape Communications inched forward this week in its effort to catch up to Microsoft with the second preview release of its Web browser, mimicking some of its competitors' tricks and serving a few of its own.

The latest release brings Netscape a step closer to technological parity with Microsoft, which released its own version 5 browser 17 months ago. Netscape, currently marketing its 4.74 version, encountered repeated delays after opting to rebuild the browser from scratch through the open-source group Mozilla.org.

Netscape, which dropped the brand name "Communicator" with the 6.0 version, is skipping the version 5 appellation altogether.

In conjunction with this week's release of Netscape 6 Preview Release 2 (PR2), Mozilla released its Milestone 17 version. Mozilla is a group of volunteers and Netscape employees whose contributions become publicly available for free and licensed use; Netscape's releases are based on Mozilla's work but are branded by Netscape, a division of America Online.

Having seen Netscape's once dominant market share steadily eroded by Microsoft, some question whether the latest releases are too little, too late. Mozilla, which has long enjoyed the near-unanimous backing of the Web standards community for its commitment to producing a standards-compliant browser, has seen some support crumble in recent weeks because of continued delays.

The Web Standards Project (WaSP) this summer posted an open letter lambasting Mozilla for failing to produce a browser well into its third year.

Netscape today said the PR2 was its best response to its critics.

"The bottom line (of the WaSP letter) was that the best thing that Netscape can do for the cause of standards compliance is to complete and release a browser as soon as possible," said Eric Krock, group product manager at Netscape. "That's exactly what we're doing. We're single-mindedly working on getting it into the marketplace as soon as possible."

Krock also noted that the new browser has been completely rebuilt, and that it is being released for three platforms simultaneously.

"We're delivering an unprecedented breadth and depth of standards support that no other vendor has attempted even on a single platform," Krock said.

Dress up
Netscape's PR2 rides a wave of user interface customization that has spawned tailored browsers, such as those provided by NeoPlanet, and media players from Microsoft and Yahoo. With its "themes," Netscape now is providing multiple user interfaces with different looks and is sponsoring a contest for developers to come up with new ones.

The contest, which runs through the end of September, highlights a major revision in the Netscape browser code. The themes--or "skins," as they are generally referred to among developers--are designed using XML-based User Interface Language (XUL, pronounced "zool").

Drafted in March 1999, XUL lets developers write the browser's graphical user interface (GUI) in Web markup languages that browsers themselves can understand and interpret, rather than in the traditional computer programming languages such as C++, which must be written to a particular computer operating system.

"XUL is Netscape's secret weapon for fast, cross-platform application and user interface development," Krock said. "It is the inherent flexibility and customizability of XUL that makes the foundation that makes themes possible."

Themes only modify a cosmetic subset of the user interface, Krock said. That leaves a lot more that developers can modify using the language, including pull-down menus, dialog boxes, toolbars and sidebars.

To that end, some application developers have started using the Mozilla code as a basis for non-browser applications, such as XMLterm, which simulates a Unix-style command-line interface. Another project aims to blend emerging word processing and spreadsheet applications from Sun Microsystems with Mozilla.

While NeoPlanet has been offering a tailored browser for years, that software is only compatible with certain versions of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser running on Microsoft's Windows operating system. Netscape 6 works across Windows, Linux and Macintosh platforms.

Catch up
Other additions to Netscape 6 PR2 include features that match current Microsoft offerings.

With IE 5, Microsoft began integrating its email client with its free, Web-based email site, Hotmail. Now the Netscape email client offers similar integration with its Netcenter Webmail service.

PR2 comes with a Password Manager, which consolidates various login names and passwords under a single encrypted password. PR2's Forms Manager automatically completes information entered into online forms. Microsoft introduced a similar feature with IE 5.

see story: Netscape 6 review Netscape plans to release one more prerelease version of the browser and a final version by year-end. PR2 will be the last version to offer significant new features, as the remaining two releases will focus on stability and performance.

"PR2 is a very significant milestone because we are completing the feature set while providing a level of stability that makes it extremely useful," said Chris Nalls, senior product manager for Netscape. "PR2 represents a milestone that is definitely useable for all-day, all-the-time use. We haven't finished our polish work, but it's a very strong release."

Web developers familiar with the release agreed that Netscape had made significant progress with PR2.

"I have been rooting for Netscape, and it's looking impressive as it goes along," said Joe Duong, a Web developer at Ice in Toronto. "I can already see the improvement in (Cascading Style Sheets) CSS compliance, which is a big issue for us. Netscape's 4.x series is not CSS compliant."

CSS is a World Wide Web Consortium recommendation for separating stylistic attributes of Web pages from the pages' content. Both Netscape and Microsoft have come under fire from Web developers' advocacy groups for not hewing closely enough to industry standards.

Duong said Netscape still has work to do in the next two releases in speeding the performance of the new themes.

"They're taking a page out of the Linux book, where all of the user interface is usually themeable," said Duong. "But I would say that the user interface components are still a little slow."