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AOL 7.0 tests Netscape browser

America Online says it is testing a Netscape-developed Web browser within its software, fueling speculation that Microsoft's browser may be replaced as its default.

America Online said Thursday that it has begun testing technology developed by Netscape Communications within its software, fueling speculation that it may replace Microsoft's Internet Explorer as its default Web browser.

In an e-mail to software testers, AOL said it is trying out Netscape's rendering engine, dubbed "Gecko," on its latest software, AOL 7.0. Gecko technology allows Web pages to be displayed, serving as a foundation for Web browsers. AOL and Netscape are both divisions of AOL Time Warner.

The project?code-named "Talon," according to one beta tester--comes as AOL is testing Gecko on online service CompuServe, which it owns. Now AOL has expanded the tests to its flagship service, a move that could reignite a browser war by making Netscape the default for some 34 million Web surfers.

"We've been testing Netscape's Gecko on CompuServe since fall, and AOL is just beginning to test now," AOL spokesman Jim Whitney said. "We've invested significant resources in continuing to develop Gecko, and it is great technology."

Launching new versions of the AOL service without Microsoft's IE, long AOL's default browser, could cause an enormous rift between the two technology giants. For years, the companies have fiercely battled in the marketplace and in the federal courts, but they have maintained a business relationship. Now, there are signs that AOL and Microsoft are gearing up for a cold war.

"It makes sense if you're AOL and you're concerned about Microsoft's influence on the industry," Gartner analyst David Smith said. "What better way to make sure there's another browser that has the market share to compete with Microsoft?"

The tests come amid speculation that AOL plans to dump IE for its 8.0 version, due in the fall. However, Whitney downplayed the tests, noting that it is too early to speculate which browser technology will be used in the upcoming version.

Drawing the line
AOL's Gecko tests signal the latest salvo in an ongoing battle between two technology giants vying for domination of the Internet. AOL has the largest Internet audience, and switching to its own browser could greatly affect how those people view the Web. Most browsers do not generate any direct revenue, but they can influence where Web surfers go and what applications they use.

Microsoft and AOL have theoretically squared off in the browser market since AOL announced in November 1998 that it would acquire Netscape for $4.2 billion. But AOL had until recently avoided a direct confrontation, sticking to a long-term deal that made IE its default browser in exchange for distribution of its software in new versions of Microsoft's Windows operating system.

The relationship has increasingly shown signs of wear.

Last summer, the two companies tangled over terms for bundling AOL into Microsoft's Windows XP operating system. Talks dissolved after the two companies could not agree on terms of the deal.

AOL has also raised concerns over Microsoft's dominance in the browser business. In October, Web users noticed that people trying to access through alternative browsers such as Opera, Mozilla and some forms of Netscape were locked out of the site.

Things heated up again in December when Netscape sued Microsoft in civil court, alleging the software giant's business practices unfairly crushed its business.

In recent years, Netscape has seen its market share dwindle to about 10 percent, damaged partly by Microsoft's aggressive competition but also because of its own missteps.

In a bid to combat Microsoft's growing lead, the company released its code to the open-source community in March 1998, creating the Mozilla project. But the effort has been widely viewed as a disappointment, having produced no official release after years in development. The group released its most recent upgrade last week, and it expects to have its first official version shortly.

In the meantime, however, Netscape has suffered with what many have viewed as an inferior product. Netscape 6.0, built on beta Mozilla code, was not received well, although upgrades have fared better.

AOL's Netscape trials suggest that the company now believes the browser has improved sufficiently to take on its old rival.

"AOL has had the ability to change browsers since they purchased Netscape back in 1998," said Microsoft spokesman Jim Cullinan. "So it's not surprising that they might make that decision. But Internet Explorer is by far the best technology because it provides users the best experience on the Internet. But the decision remains AOL's."