Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Dodging pop-ups with Mozilla

The open-source browser that's the primordial soup for Netscape is drawing applause for its pop-up-blocking feature. But don't expect to see the tool in Netscape 7.0.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
5 min read

Mozilla 1.0, the open-source technology behind the latest Netscape browser, is garnering favor for helping to block irksome pop-up advertisements. But don't expect to see that feature in the coming full release of Netscape 7.0.

Mozilla 1.0, launched in early June as the first public version of the Netscape-inspired open-source browser, lets Web surfers easily zap unsolicited windows known as pop-up ads, which are widely used by mainstream sites including America Online and its subsidiary Netscape Communications. Though heralded by Mozilla users, a group that includes many Web developers, the tool didn't make the cut for the preview version of Netscape 7.0 and won't appear in its upcoming launch, according to the company.

That arrangement, analysts say, is blatant self-protection.

"Netscape is a commercial offering--it's not in its interest to offer a browser that could kill pop-up ads," said Michael Gartenberg, research director with Jupiter Research. "That's the equivalent of one of the broadcast networks coming out with a digital video recorder that can skip commercials."

Still, the feature?s popularity highlights a growing schism on the Net over the intrusive ads. As the online advertising market deflated in recent years, Web operators sold more imposing ad formats, including pop-ups, to convince hesitant marketers that the Web could prove effective. But as the commercials blanketed the Web, some Net visitors ran for cover in anti-ad software or by simply avoiding sites that promoted advertisers too boldly.

Further illustrating the conflict, AOL, a veritable poster child for pop-ups, cut back nearly 90 percent on such promotions in recent months to avoid turning off subscribers. Other Web operators have scaled back on the ad style too.

At the same time, software developers have been experimenting with new tools. For example, Google in May started using a new feature for its search toolbar called "browser control," which lets Internet users suppress pop-up windows that appear when they attempt to leave a Web site. Other browsers, such as Opera, let Web surfers automatically block pop-ups too.

Mozilla 1.0?s feature is engineered to ignore that JavaScript command. It typically blocks all unwanted windows including questionnaires and informational boxes, but Web surfers can still request such boxes by clicking on a link.

"The pop-up blocker is awesome," said James Russell, a Web editor who has been a Mozilla convert since the late 1990s. "What's cool is that legitimate pop-up windows, that is, those that are actually necessary for a site, seem to work just fine; somehow Mozilla knows which ones to block."

Web surfers can turn on the pop-up stopper in Mozilla 1.0 by clicking on their edit menu and selecting "preferences." In the advanced menu window, under "Scripts and Plugins," people must uncheck the "open unrequested windows" checkbox. Then click "OK."

Jupiter?s Gartenberg said that the feature shows the influence of the open-source community.

"This illustrates the power and strength of open-source software--you can find a programmer that finds pop ads annoying, then you?ll have this feature...because there?s no corporate office to deal with," he said. "The popularity of it has probably created a certain amount of horror in the Netscape offices."

Beyond the browser
Broadly, Mozilla is a programming tool for building applications that run on almost any operating system. Though developers initially concentrated on building a browser, the underlying technology can be used to create many types of applications. Some developers have already branched out to make Mozilla into instant messaging software, media players and other applications.

Netscape created the Mozilla open-source project in 1998, when it opened up its source code. At the time, then-independent Netscape charged the open-source project with creating a compelling Web-browsing technology to compete with Microsoft?s growing dominance with Internet Explorer.

After nearly three years, Netscape released Netscape 6.0 in November 2000 as the first browser based on Mozilla code, with some criticism. The release was largely judged to have been premature. AOL Time Warner has even tested Mozilla technology in versions of AOL and other software.

In late May, Netscape introduced a test version of its newest browser, Netscape 7.0, based on the same code as Mozilla 1.0. The full release is expected in coming months. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company updated its browser for speed and ease of use between multiple activities such as Web browsing, search, chat and e-mail.

The browser uses novel features from Mozilla, including "tabbed browsing," which lets people open several pages within one window and click between pages similar to a filing system. Web surfers can bookmark chains of pages together.

Though Netscape 7 users don't have the anti pop-up tool in their preferences, some users have found a workaround by installing an ad-blocker file to expand their preferences.

Chimera, a Mozilla-based browser for the Mac, also includes the anti-pop-up feature.

A representative of Mozilla could not say how popular the browser or the anti-pop-up feature is. But Mozilla and Netscape take up only a fraction of the browser market, according to researchers. Netscape users around the world comprise less than 5 percent of the market, according to WebSideStory?s StatMarket, versus between 94 percent and 95 percent for Microsoft?s Internet Explorer. StatMarket estimates Mozilla use to be less than 1 percent.

Another researcher, Amsterdam, Netherlands-based OneStat, reported in June that use for Mozilla 1.0 comprised 0.04 percent of the global population.

When asked why the feature isn't offered in Netscape 7.0, Mozilla spokesman Derrick Mains said that it's like "comparing apples to oranges."

"Netscape is a very different product, designed for a mass market consumer audience," Mains said. "Mozilla is for developers--different products, target audiences and needs."

In addition, Mozilla does not combine all the features of Netscape 7.0 such as AOL Instant Messenger and Radio@Netscape, a new service on the Netscape toolbar that lets people play music from specialized radio stations.

Such applications force Mozilla 1.0 users like Russell, the Web editor, to also use Netscape 7.0, even though he loves the anti-pop-up feature.

"I was hoping and hoping and hoping that the next version of Netscape would include that feature, but those pop-up ads are exactly what they don?t want you to be able to block," he said.