Did Netscape jump the gun with new browser?

Long heckled for being late to market with its new browser, Netscape Communications is now the target of critics who say the company jumped the gun in releasing the browser this month.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
6 min read
Long heckled for being late to market with its new browser, Netscape Communications is now the target of critics who say the company jumped the gun in releasing the browser this month.

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Netscape unveils long-awaited browser version 6
Jim Martin, general manager and senior VP, Netscape Communications

Netscape fans breathed a sigh of relief two weeks ago with the official launch of Netscape's first major browser release in more than two years. The browser's 32-month gestation, marked by regularly revised due dates, gave what many saw as a critical advantage to rival Microsoft in establishing its dominance of the browser market.

But some supporters say problems with the release indicate that Netscape should have waited until its open-source group, Mozilla.org, released its own version 1.0 browser, which isn't due for another five months.

"Netscape 6 still plays like beta software," said Glenn Davis, a co-founder of the Web Standards Project (WaSP) and an independent Web publisher. "The results I've had using it seem to indicate that it's just not quite finished. I'd have much rather seen them wait until the Mozilla project had their 1.0 version complete instead of rushing it out the door.

"Sure, we needed something new from Netscape--after all, their 4.0 browsers have become Web antiques--but there are still far too many bugs evident."

In an official statement released Thursday, WaSP lauded the browser's standards support but acknowledged its technical problems, calling Netscape 6 "essentially a 1.0 software release."

Netscape 6 also came under fire in postings to newsgroups, including "netscape.public.general," and other public forums, where critics complained about issues ranging from the browser's speed and stability to its compatibility with various Web technologies and the size of its download.

Netscape defended the timing and quality of the release.

"A burning need"
"Netscape 6 represents a quantum leap forward in convenience, customizability, Web standards support and user privacy protection," Michael La Guardia, director of product marketing at Netscape, wrote in an email interview. "We have answered a burning need for our users by putting it out in the marketplace."

The controversy over the release of Netscape 6 underscores the difficulty of Netscape's position. Because Netscape 6 was written from scratch, rather than molded from the proprietary 4.x code, the new product is, as critics point out, akin to a version 1.0 release.

On the other hand, Netscape faces the competitive pressures of a maturing browser market that Microsoft has by most accounts overtaken. That has led to sometimes shrill demands for speedy delivery, voiced by standards advocates and others who fear a one-browser Web.

Some of the finished browser's critics also lambasted Netscape for its delays, leading the company's defenders to see it as damned it if does and damned if it doesn't.

"Why are you taking forever to deliver a usable browser?" the WaSP asked in a July open letter to Netscape. "If you genuinely realized it would take two years to replace Netscape 4, we wish you would have told us. No market, let alone the Internet, can stand still that long."

The company said it is paying close attention to consumers' reactions, which it said have been mostly positive.

"Netscape is closely monitoring feedback to Netscape 6," said a company representative. "Thus far, the overwhelming response to the product from consumers and reviewers has been positive, and the downloads of the product have exceeded our expectations."

The release of Netscape 6 marked the culmination of Netscape's efforts to rebuild its browser based on the work of Mozilla, the open-source development group it established in 1998. In the open-source model, software's underlying source code is published, volunteers collaborate on its development, and the results are made available for free and licensed use.

Netscape--like any other licensee of the Mozilla source code--can choose to implement the code in its products at any time. Netscape chose to build Netscape 6 around a freeze frame of the work-in-progress shortly before Mozilla's 18th milestone release.

Mozilla doesn't plan to release its own version 1.0 of the browser until the second quarter of next year--a deadline critics argue would have given Netscape time to squash more bugs before releasing its branded version.

Netscape counters that Mozilla's work is now concentrated on the specific goal of turning the browser into something light and fast enough to be used in small computing devices such as handhelds and cell phones. That goal--recognized to be of particular interest to Netscape's parent company, America Online--is of little interest to consumers using the browser on the PC, Netscape argues.

"Netscape continues to be the biggest contributor to the development effort coordinated by Mozilla.org," La Guardia wrote. "However, Mozilla 1.0 represents changes and improvements to the code base that make the code very usable and embeddable by a developer audience--Mozilla.org's audience. While these changes are critical to the long-term success and growth of the code base, they were orthogonal to Netscape delivering the best Internet software suite to Netscape's audience."

Adhering to standards
Meanwhile, even the browser's critics acknowledge that Netscape and Mozilla have achieved one of their primary goals: to release a browser that adhered as closely as possible to standards laid down by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

"The Web Standards Project congratulates Netscape for producing the most standards-compliant browser the Web has ever seen: one that leverages the power of open source while raising the bar on what 'support for Web standards' really means," WaSP said in its statement.

"We look forward to Netscape's taking the browser to the next level, with help from the Mozilla project," the WaSP concluded.

Because Mozilla 1.0 won't be out for another five months, some participants in the project wanted Mozilla to put out a version that corresponded as closely as possible to the Netscape commercial release. In response to this demand, the group will release Mozilla 0.6 this week or next.

Mozilla 0.6--which marks a permanent departure from Mozilla's "milestone x" nomenclature for its releases--will have a leg up on Netscape 6 with a few features, mainly of interest to specialists. These include bug fixes to help MathML operate properly and porting changes that will let the browser work with OS/2.

MathML is a language, based on XML, that lets browsers display complex mathematical equations. OS/2 is an operating system, initially co-developed by Microsoft and IBM in the 1980s but later abandoned by Microsoft, that is now popular among a small group of loyalists.

With Mozilla 1.0, the open-source group is aiming for a browser that will be significantly smaller and less demanding of memory, with the goal of making it useful for handheld computers and other devices, in addition to the PC.

Trunks and branches
Other features planned--but not promised--for Mozilla 1.0 include support for the scripting languages Perl and Python. Mozilla also expects to support bidirectional code for languages, such as Arabic, that read from right to left.

In December, Mozilla will release Mozilla 0.8, deliberately skipping Mozilla 0.7 to emphasize the discontinuity with Mozilla 0.6. That discontinuity stems from the fact that the two versions will derive from different tracks of the Mozilla development effort.

When Netscape prepared to release Netscape 6, Mozilla created a corresponding development "branch" parallel to the Mozilla "trunk." Mozilla 0.6 is the product of the branch. Mozilla 0.8 and subsequent versions will come from the trunk.

The branch will live on to support any minor-point 6.x releases Netscape puts out.

Branching from the trunk is necessary so that a company can do quality testing on a static version. But the practice adds some complexity to the development process. Significant changes to the branch need to be resubmitted to the trunk, and more computing resources are required to assemble and post nightly builds of the software.

Thus far, Netscape has been the only vendor granted its own branch off the Mozilla trunk. But others could follow.

"We'll see, as time goes on, if another significant vendor needs a branch and has a good rationale," said Mozilla spokesman Mitchell Baker, whose title is chief lizard wrangler in reference to Mozilla's reptilian mascot. "Sometimes the companies want to do their branching inside and have absolute control. But it's not a process aimed for Netscape alone."