Since missing a summer deadline for Communicator 5.0, Netscape has seen its existing version 4.7 continue to lose market share to Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, whose trial version 5.5 is expected to be released today on its MSDN site. And studies show marked migrations to IE among corporate users.
The difference between 4.7 and 5.5 may not seem like much, but the technology gap is vast. To catch up with Microsoft, Netscape is rebuilding the product from the ground up, replacing its legacy software with a leaner, more standards-compliant architecture composed of separable components that developers can use more easily with their applications.
But the delays have clearly hurt Netscape's efforts to hold on to its dwindling market share and remain a credible alternative to Microsoft's IE.
Critics say that in falling so far behind Microsoft in its browser development, Netscape is ceding more of its tenuous position in the browser market, and that allowing Microsoft to lock up that market poses a serious threat to both content and software companies, as well as to consumers.
AOL has vacillated in the past on the importance of Communicator, which is being developed under the auspices of Netscape's open-source organization, Mozilla.org.
A year before AOL said it would buy Netscape, Netscape decided to put Communicator into open-source development. Under such a model, the source code to a product is published and an organization oversees the development by both paid and volunteer developers of a product that generally is made available under a free public license.
Barry Schuler, president of AOL's interactive services group, said in an interview that the delays do not indicate that the company is not committed to the browser.
"We are absolutely committed to the idea that there's not going to be one browser code base in the world, there's going to be at least two, and that the Netscape code base will be one of those two," he said.
Schuler said AOL will announce a new browser strategy shortly after the new year.
"Clearly, based on the original, pre-AOL announcements, 5.0 is late," Schuler said. "We really haven't announced a new ship date, and we've acknowledged that it's late. And we will very shortly be announcing a new strategy and ship date for the Netscape family of browsing products."
Web developers complain that incomplete support for Web standards forces them to code different versions of their sites for each browser or provide workarounds for noncompliant browsers. Advocacy groups like the Web Standards Project (WSP) have successfully applied pressure on Netscape to focus on standards compliance and scuttle an effort to maintain development of the legacy code.
"We were hoping they'd get it out the door so we could start using it," said WSP project leader George Olsen. "It's nice to have a standards-friendly browser, but it doesn't help us if it doesn't ship."
Olsen was circumspect in assessing the harm from Netscape's delays apart from inconveniencing Web developers.
"Their market share has dropped considerably, but whether that would have happened if [Communicator] 5 was out earlier is hard to say," Olsen said. "It certainly hasn't helped them."
For the near-term future of Communicator, Mozilla representative Mike Shaver told the Mozillazine online news site that a pretrial, or "alpha," version of Communicator 5.0 would be ready Dec. 15, with a "beta" to follow in mid-February.
A Mozilla release is not quite the same as a Netscape Communicator release. Netscape will brand and package its own version of the Mozilla browser, which could require more time depending on alterations Netscape wants to make for its branded version.
A final product typically ships about six months after a beta release, but Shaver declined to set a final release goal.
AOL declined to confirm Shaver's comments.
Sources close to the Communicator development effort have offered various explanations for the project's lateness. One cited the introduction of new features, including a user-interface technology called Extensible User Interface Language (XUL) and the merging of mail and instant messaging functions.
AOL has long said it would take advantage of architecture made of separate components to fit the browser into small appliances as part of its "AOL Everywhere" initiative to expand AOL's reach outside the personal computer.
"We have been rethinking and developing plans around Gecko," Schuler said, referring to the Communicator browsing engine responsible for rendering graphics and text. "Since we've taken over, we have been reformulating strategy, and the strategy is going to change."
Implementing XUL has posed difficulties for Gecko, sources say. With XUL, the browser's graphical interface will be rendered in Web coding languages rather than in more complex computer coding languages, and that has put unexpected strain on Gecko.
"XUL is making the engine do things it wasn't originally supposed to have to do," said another source close to Communicator's development. "Running the whole [user interface] off our layout engine, as opposed to having it embedded, and building our own widgets and buttons has meant doing a lot more work and uncovering more and more bugs. In the long run, it's really good from a software engineering perspective, but in the short term it slows things down."
He also said that in setting its deadline goals, Netscape repeatedly underestimated the difficulty of building the browser from the ground up. Netscape had expected to be able to use some of the existing chunks of code from the legacy Communicator architecture that forms the technological basis for the 4.0 version of the product. But that expectation repeatedly fell through, sending Netscape engineers back to the drawing board and delaying the launch date.
In one example, he said that midway through this summer, Netscape had to scuttle plans to incorporate the old Communicator networking libraries, software that connects the browser to the Internet.
"That was a huge undertaking," he said. "We never had the resources to do it, and we'd never scheduled it in. That was a big problem."
Further complicating the client effort were departures of key figures from both Netscape and Mozilla. Those included Mozilla founder and evangelist Jamie Zawinski.
Following an initial wave of defections, the client engineering group has maintained its staff, according to a member, who added that AOL's acquisition has been well received following initial apprehension. Communicator engineers see AOL as a supportive but "hands off" boss, he said.