Internet

Netscape readies new browser, wins development support

The software maker's plan to regain Web browser dominance through its Mozilla open-source development project may finally be getting some respect.

Call it the revenge of the lizard.

All but trounced by Microsoft in the browser wars, Netscape Communications has long harbored a plan to regain dominance through its Mozilla open-source development project, promising revolutionary new technology to tap into the Web.

Such pronouncements have been long on hype and short on delivery, but now the company's efforts appear to be gaining respect.

See related story: AOL quietly plots browser comeback Netscape today announced that it will deliver a test version of its long-delayed Web browser within the next 25 days. Perhaps more significantly, the company said that numerous partners have agreed to develop hardware and software products to support its Gecko technology for displaying text and graphics on the Net.

Few analysts believe that Netscape is poised to reclaim its position as the leading browser, where Microsoft's Internet Explorer has a commanding lead. But the broad adoption of Gecko--the first technology produced under Mozilla--could lead to important new approaches for Web developers and could more easily extend Web access to handheld devices, analysts said.

"Gecko gives (developers) more options and standards more power, and that's a good thing," said Barry Parr, an analyst at International Data Corp. (IDC), who noted that a major advantage of the technology is that it conforms to specifications adopted by Web standards bodies. "What everyone is writing to is IE running on Windows. The advantage of Gecko is it could lead to work in which developers and producers write to the standard as opposed to the browser."

Netscape said companies supporting Gecko to develop new software and hardware products include IBM, Intel, Liberate, NetObjects, Nokia, Red Hat and Sun Microsystems.

Martin Frid-Nielsen, vice president of client server engineering at NetObjects, said Gecko provides several advantages over IE.

"What (Netscape has) done with Mozilla is they've gotten into the niche level in making the browser open and extensible enough so you can make a browser and customize it," he said. "What we've found with the IE foundation is it's not as open and not as cross-platform as what we see (with Mozilla)."

Microsoft could not immediately be reached for comment.

A key feature of Gecko is that it uses Extensible User Interface Language (XUL), a new technology for creating user interfaces with Web programming languages rather than with computer coding languages. Gecko can also be embedded in Web-enabled devices, such as set-top boxes and home appliances.

See news analysis: What AOL stands to lose in browser war Developers appear to be looking at Gecko for creating new products that take the Web beyond the personal computer.

NetObjects will use Gecko to develop software that combines its enterprise applications products onto a single Web interface. Liberate plans to support Gecko in its interactive-TV software. Nokia and Intel will jointly develop an Internet TV product based on open-source technologies such as Gecko and Linux, an open-source operating system.

As part of today's partnership announcements, America Online said it will use Gecko in its forthcoming interactive-TV service, called AOL TV. AOL also will use Gecko to develop future instant messaging products and will combine the technology with other services, including CompuServe, AOL@School, the Spinner Net radio player, the Winamp MP3 audio player and ICQ instant messenger.

AOL executives have said that Gecko will become the centerpiece of the "AOL Anywhere" strategy--the online giant's push to distribute its proprietary Internet services through multiple channels, such as television and wireless personal devices.

Netscape will also incorporate Gecko into its new browser. As previously reported, the new browser, called Netscape 6.0, is the first Web browser software to emerge from Netscape since its acquisition by AOL in November 1998. AOL plans to let companies license Netscape 6.0, which is based on Gecko technology, to create their own branded browsers.

For Mountain View, Calif.-based Netscape, the new browser release is significant given the Web pioneer's recent development lull. Since AOL acquired the company, Netscape has remained largely on the sidelines as its main adversary, Microsoft, has pumped out updated versions of its IE browser software. Studies have shown that corporate users are increasingly migrating to IE.

As for Netscape, the Mozilla group has struggled to meet deadlines and has suffered from key employee defections.

The company also failed to ship its Puppet masters: Who controls the Netfifth-generation Communicator browser last summer, but it has been working on versions of its existing 4.7 browser in the interim.

Some analysts don't see Netscape making a dent in Microsoft's lead. "The browser war is over, and Explorer has won," said Seamus McAteer, an analyst at Jupiter Communications. "We will see different browsers other than IE in non-PC devices, but the PC is still where the action is for the foreseeable future."

Others noted that while AOL appears to be throwing its weight behind Gecko, it hasn't aggressively supported Netscape products in the past, adding to doubts about a major turnaround for the company.

"What Netscape told me is that the reason why AOL is not using the Netscape browser as its default is that it's a quid pro quo with Microsoft in being on the Windows 98 desktop," said IDC's Parr. "The question is: If AOL were really serious about taking on Microsoft, why are they not using Netscape as their default browser?"