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Communicator beta ships

Netscape quietly posts the first public beta version of Communicator, days before today's scheduled release date.

Netscape Communications (NSCP) this weekend quietly posted the first public beta version of Communicator, days before today's scheduled release date.

Netscape is calling the first public beta version of Communicator "preview release 1," a term which may explain the absence of several key features in the browser. The preview version of Communicator supports only 32-bit Windows platforms--Windows 95 and NT--not Macintosh, Unix, and Windows 3.1.

But the core features are all in place, including the Navigator 4.0 browser, Messenger email client, Composer HTML editing tool, the Collabra News reader, and Conference audio conferencing software.

Each component includes a number of improvements over previous editions of Navigator. For example, the browser now supports layering and absolute positioning, two technologies that enhance the layout of Web pages; the messenger supports email look-ups in Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) servers, rules and filters, and message searches; and Conference exploits the H.323 interoperability standard. The graphical user interface for all components has been significantly changed as well.

However, as is typical with early browser betas, several features are still missing from the preview release of Communicator, including secure email, JavaScript and CSS1 StyleSheets, and full help support. Messenger also lacks full support for IMAP4 (Internet Mail Access Protocol) protocol, which simplifies email use for mobile users, though some basic IMAP capabilities are available.

Release notes for the 32-bit Windows version of Communicator are available on the Netscape Web site. The software can also be downloaded from the Netscape site.

A statement on the company's Web site said that Mac and Unix preview releases of Communicator would be available in early 1997.

The public release comes on the heels of another preview release issued last week by Netscape to developers. That version generally received praise, although some developers were still anxious to get a look at the missing features.

"A lot of it seemed like [interface] redesign," said Rich Kadel, vice president of software development at DTAI. "I saw a few glitches here and there. It seemed like the Web browser was the least mature of the components. We had a couple of our [pages] that didn't show up correctly. The next step is getting the browser cleaned up."

"From the outside, it looks good," said one developer who preferred to remain anonymous. "But in terms of developer-related features, lots of stuff isn't implemented yet." The developer is eager to see a feature that automatically downloads and registers plug-ins.

But while bugs remain and some features are missing, one leading Java developer said the release is still exceptionally stable for an early beta.

"It's the most solid preview release I've ever seen out of Netscape," said Karl Jacob, CEO of Dimension X. "I'm pretty impressed. I think the user interface is much, much better. It's a preview so there are going to be some problems, but it seems like a really good start."

For an alternate download site, go to CNET's DOWNLOAD.COM.

For an alternate download site, go to CNET's DOWNLOAD.COM.