As previously reported by CNET NEWS.COM, Communicator 4.5 introduces both content filtering controls as well as features that eliminate steps in the Web searching process. Other innovations in Version 4.5 are geared toward corporate users who need to access their email from different computers.
"The Communicator 4.5 release reflects a general direction of ours in terms of integrating the product with the Internet," said Julie Herendeen, director of marketing client products at Netscape. "We continue to hear from our users that they want easier Web searching and high-performance messaging."
With the Version 4.5 release, the Communicator suite has shrunk by one application because the Collabra software for newsgroup management has been folded into the Messenger software for email management.
Today's announcement precedes a beta release early next month, and a fall shipment of the final product.
Communicator 4.5 has been on a parallel development track with Communicator 5.0, which will be Netscape's first Internet software suite based on the work of Mozilla.org.
In an attempt to stop steady hemorrhaging of its Navigator browser's market share to Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, Netscape released its browser's source code to the public, and assigned Mozilla.org the task of guiding the development community's work with that code. At that time, Netscape also made the product free of charge.
Developers working with Mozilla.org have been analyzing source code for 4.5 improvements as Netscape has passed them on, but the 4.5 release does not incorporate any Mozilla.org work, according to Netscape.
Netscape is categorizing features new to Communicator 4.5 under two main headings: Smart Browsing and Flexible Roaming Access.
Smart Browsing itself comprises three features. The first of these, called "What's Related," provides visitors to many Web sites with a drop-down box containing an automatically generated list of recommended related sites. Developed in a partnership with Alexa Internet, the feature relies on the servers of Netscape's Netcenter portal site for a database of links that are automatically updated through software that tracks and analyzes people's Web use.
The What's Related function does not discriminate on the basis of content, according to Smart Browsing program manager Ken Hickman, and will provide recommended links for controversial Web sites such as pornography and hate speech sites.
The second Smart Browsing feature, called "Internet Keywords," lets users type search keywords directly into the browser's URL address field.
Users of both Netscape's and Microsoft's current browsers will recognize this feature; those browsers already can read keywords typed into the browser and bring up a page of search results--from Netcenter in Netscape's case, and from Yahoo in Microsoft's.
But Communicator 4.5 goes beyond the current browsers' keyword capabilities by tapping into a database of trademarked and product names. In Netscape's example, typing "Ford Ranger" into the URL field of Navigator 4.5 would take the user directly to Ford Motor Company's page devoted to the Ranger, for example.
More ambiguous terms like "United"--which could refer to United Airlines, United Van Lines, and numerous other firms--eventually will lead to a list of possible matches once the databases are built out. But until that happens, terms like "United" will share the same destination that keywords typed into Navigator 4.0 browsers have: a search results page from Netcenter.
In another instance of Communicator's increasing integration with Netcenter, keywords that correspond to a Netcenter channel will lead the user to that channel.
The third element of Smart Browsing is called NetWatch, a set of content filtering tools for parents, librarians, or network administrators.
The two Net site screening features integrated into the browser are RSACi and SafeSurf Web site ratings systems. Microsoft Internet Explorer already supports both systems, which block access to sites containing adult language, violence, and nudity, for example, based on ratings applied to Web pages by content providers.
Netscape's support is a big boost for Net ratings systems, advocated by some because it gives the user more control but criticized by others who worry that the filters will wind up curtailing free speech.
Recreational Software Advisory Council president Stephen Balkam described Netscape's support for filtering systems as a major step forward for industry self-regulation.
"It's a tremendous breakthrough in the evolution of self-regulation now that Netscape has come on board," Balkam said. "It sends a clear signal to the United States and international governments that the industry can and has its act together regarding content, and that we do not need more draconian legistlation like the CDA."
The CDA, or Communications Decency Act, was a federal law that made it a felony to use the Net to display or send "indecent" material that could be seen by a minor. The Supreme Court struck down the law last year.
Communicator 4.5's features for mobile, or "roaming," corporate Netizens include the ability for users to create profiles of their Internet software configurations and access those set-ups from any computer. Other roaming features fall primarily into the Messaging portion of Communicator.
These roaming corporate users are a prime target audience for Netcenter, which gets an unusually high amount of its traffic from people accessing it from work during business hours.
Previous versions of Communicator have supported a type of email following the protocol IMAP, or Internet Message Access Protocol. IMAP is more flexible than the more common POP-based email. IMAP lets users use the server for tasks previously reserved for the client computer, including the storage and management of email.
New IMAP-related features of Communicator 4.5 will let users specify what attachments they want to download from the server, and will let them search more precisely for documents within email folders. Another feature new to 4.5 will let users share email folders on IMAP servers.
Version 4.5 also will increase the number of options for filtering incoming messages, and also will widen the range of management capabilities enabled during offline sessions.
Other new features of Communicator 4.5's are based on the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, or LDAP. Like IMAP, LDAP was supported in previous versions of Communicator, but version 4.5 will go beyond basic support by expanding the capabilities of the Messenger address book.
In one instance, Communicator 4.5 will let users look up an employee's name in a corporate directory, and if several names come up, the client address book can then access the corporate directory for more identifying information such as job title or department.
Communicator 4.5 will also let users replicate LDAP directories for offline sessions, and will automate synchronization between server and client files when the user logs in again to the network.
Another modification to Version 4.5 is a revised calendar. With Communicator 4.5, the calendar interface will more closely resemble that of the email program. Hovering over calendar dates will produce explanatory notes, known as "tooltips," summarizing information such as the time and date of the meeting. Version 4.5 also lets users drag and drop meetings from one time to another, and it notifies users automatically of conflicts as they are scheduled.