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New Communicator promotes Digital City

Along with adding performance enhancements, stronger encryption, and bug fixes to Communicator 4.6, AOL is using it to drive traffic to its local guide service.

For a company that thinks the browser market is "dead," America Online has been quick to leverage its newly acquired Communicator browser to drive traffic to a key online property.

Netscape Communications, acquired earlier this year by AOL, this weekend released Version 4.6 of the Communicator browser. As first reported by CNET News.com, Version 4.6 includes integration with RealNetworks' G2 multimedia player, stronger encryption, performance enhancements, and bug fixes.

But accompanying Version 4.6, the first Communicator revision since AOL completed its acquisition of Netscape, are changes that show that the online giant is leveraging its browser to drive traffic to one of its key online properties, Digital City.

The change, which applies to Communicator version 4.06 and above, is in the browser's "Internet Keywords" feature. The feature lets users pull down Netscape search results by typing keywords into the address bar of Communicator. Now users can access local city guide information from AOL's Digital City site by typing in "movies," "sports," "weather," or "dining" plus a city or zip code.

"By providing seamless integration with services such as SmartBrowsing and Digital Cities, Netscape Communicator 4.6 enables users to find what they want on the Web faster and easier," Barry Schuler, president of AOL Interactive Services, said in a statement.

In an out-of-court deposition in the government's antitrust case against Microsoft, Schuler testified, "There was a lot of concern that the browser business was dead and we didn't want to evaluate the value of the [Netscape] deal based on browser market share."

Still, the integration of Digital City also should help the local guide service, which is running behind Microsoft's MSN Sidewalk, according to figures from Media Metrix.

For the month of March, Digital City attracted 3.8 million unique users, according to the ratings firm. Sidewalk garnered 4.3 million users for the same period.

Netscape has long used Communicator to drive traffic to its Netcenter portal site through Internet Keywords and other features. But this is the first time AOL has introduced features to drive traffic to its revenue-producing pages.

In his deposition, Schuler said AOL thought standalone browsers had no commercial value after Microsoft started integrating its Internet Explorer browser with its Windows operating system.

AOL declined comment about Schuler's statements or about the new Internet Keywords feature.

Digital City isn't the only online property getting special placement in the Internet Keywords database. RealNetworks' Summer Movie Showcase also will be available through the keywords "summer movies," according to AOL.

Other additions to Communicator 4.6 include performance enhancements that AOL says make the browser 6.2 percent faster than Internet Explorer 5. That figure is based on tests on the top 100 nonpornographic Web sites, as determined by Media Metrix, AOL said.

Curiously, however, AOL's tests showed IE 5 to be 2.3 percent faster on Netcenter.

Version 4.6 offers 56-bit cryptography for import versions, up from 40-bit, as well as the standard 128-bit encryption for residents of the United States and Canada.

Some AOL critics greeted the weekend's release of version 4.6 with complaints that AOL should be putting all its efforts into version 5.0, which will be based on the faster, smaller, and componentized "Gecko" browsing engine, instead of continuing to tweak the old code base.

"The old code base is a dead end," wrote one commentator on the MozillaZine discussion site in a representative post. "Let's quit wasting time and energy on it."

AOL defended the continued refinements to the pre-Gecko client.

"We've always done quarterly maintenance releases to fix bugs, improve stability, and add new features," said Communicator product manager David Bottoms. "But the number of engineers working on the old code base is substantially smaller than the engineers working on Version 5.0."

Among the bugs fixed in version 4.6 is the JavaScript console file reading bug reported in March.

The browser is available for Windows, Macintosh, several flavors of Unix, and Linux. AOL next week will release versions in French, German, and Japanese.

Users who want the standalone Navigator browser, without the mail and other components of the Communicator suite, can download version 4.08. This version, however, does not include the bug fixes and performance enhancements that have come in subsequent versions.

Communicator 4.6 is available from download sites including CNET Download.com. It is expected to be available soon from Netcenter's browser download site.

CNET is the publisher of News.com.