Netscape 6 ships after 32-month gestation

More than two-and-a-half years after unveiling its source code to the world, Netscape Communications is set to release a browser built on that open source.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
5 min read
More than two-and-a-half years after unveiling its source code to the world, Netscape Communications on Tuesday will release a browser built on that open source.

Netscape, a division of America Online, is touting the release of Netscape 6 as a major milestone and a springboard for future growth, despite the fact that many analysts and observers long ago called the so-called browser war in Microsoft's favor.

Netscape 6 marks a radical departure from its predecessors because it was rewritten independently of the "legacy" code that formed the basis of Netscape's Communicator browsers through version 4.76.

In addition to its decision to rewrite the browser, Netscape early in 1998 made a strategic gamble to develop the browser under the open-source model, in which the underlying source code is published, volunteers collaborate on the product's development, and the results are made available for free and licensed use.

Both factors contributed to the long wait for Netscape 6. In the meantime, Netscape and its open-source group, Mozilla.org, weathered numerous defections of key personnel as well as criticisms that a large company with corporate motives couldn't incite the kind of widespread cooperation from developers that fueled the growth of grassroots open-source successes such as the Apache Web server and the Linux operating system.

On the eve of Tuesday's launch, Netscape defended both the programming process and the gestation period.

"If you look at how long it takes to write a software product from start to finish, it wasn't such a long time," said Sol Goldfarb, director of the browser product marketing team at Netscape. "We're proud of how quickly the product came out the doors."

Goldfarb also defended the corporate open-source experiment--which numerous companies have since imitated--as "a huge success."

The volunteer developers "have kept us honest on the issue of standards because they care deeply about it," Goldfarb said. He added that volunteers had supplied thousands of hours of bug testing, far more than the company could have done on its own, and that contributors included high-profile technologists not on AOL's payroll such as James Clark, author of the original XML specification.

Standards support
Netscape has long cited its commitment to standards support as one of the driving forces behind the new browser and its core rendering engine, dubbed Gecko. Goldfarb called the final product "the most fully standards-compliant browsing engine on the planet."

Adherence to industry standards has been a major bone of contention between the browser makers and their customers. Web developers weary of coding different Web sites for each version of each browser banded together two years ago to goad Microsoft and Netscape into creating standards-compliant browsers. That advocacy group, the Web Standards Project (WaSP), greeted the launch of Netscape 6 warmly.

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

"Even if we don't get 100 percent compliance in the first 6.0 release, we will certainly have a browser that is more standards-compliant than anything we've ever seen on the Web," Jeffrey Zeldman, group leader of the WaSP, said in an email interview. "I can't imagine a Web developer on earth who isn't looking forward to that."

Independent Web developers anticipated the launch with guarded hope, particularly in reference to Gecko's implementation in third-party browsing applications.

"Now with the new Gecko display engine, we're looking for increased rendering speed, better layout reliability and increased support for many of the standards that Netscape has been letting (Microsoft's Internet) Explorer take the glory for," said Stephen Smith, chief technologist at Ice, a Web technology and marketing company in Toronto. "We'll finally have competition for Explorer. And now that Netscape is back, they have to pick up the pace and roll out feature updates and bug fixes."

Internet Explorer, currently available in version 5.5, last week previewed version 6 to selected developers. Netscape skipped the version 5 appellation altogether.

New bells and whistles
In addition to its novel open-source genesis, Netscape 6 comes with a few new bells and whistles.

Netscape 6 includes "My Sidebar," a space on the left-hand side of the browser where a calendar, instant messaging contact lists, stock quotes and other information sits. The new browser also adds a search field directly into the browser's user interface. In both cases, Netscape is borrowing a page from Microsoft, whose Explorer browser has a similar left-hand side window where people can perform search queries and view their browsing history and other information.

Other features new to Netscape but already available from Microsoft include a password manager that will offer to store usernames and passwords for Web sites, and a forms manager that can remember information entered into Web site forms.

"Themes" let people using Netscape 6 choose from a variety of user interfaces, some designed by Netscape and others by third-party developers. Themes are made possible in part by Extensible User Interface Language, or XUL (pronounced "zool"). Netscape designed XUL to let programmers render the browser's graphical user interface using the browser's own rendering engine and Web specifications such as HTML and CSS, rather than traditional computer programming languages such as C.

Netscape will launch a "Theme Park" on its Web site where people can choose among various themes.

Netscape 6 includes a new Cookie Manager that will give people more flexibility in accepting or rejecting cookies, small data files that Web sites place on visitors' computers to keep track of their activities.

Netscape 6 also brings formerly separate applications together, including email, instant messaging and newsgroup message management.

To stimulate demand for Netscape 6, the company announced the Netscape "6stakes," with a $100,000 grand prize among 1,000 total prizes that also include a Hawaiian vacation. The browser is available for download from Netscape's site, CNET Download.com and ZDNet Download. CNET Networks is the publisher of News.com and owns ZDNet. You've got Time Warner

Another aspect of the Netscape 6 marketing campaign bears the stamp of AOL's familiar methods: Netscape 6 will be distributed on CDs included in numerous magazines owned by Time Warner, whose acquisition by AOL is now pending before federal regulators.

Since AOL's acquisition of Netscape, a large question mark has hung over the relationship between the Netscape browser and the AOL proprietary online service, which now uses a version of Explorer for Web browsing.

With the launch of Netscape 6, AOL said there were no plans to swap Netscape 6 for Explorer. But the company's plans to implement Gecko throughout other areas of its growing media empire are going ahead full-steam.

"We're positive that Gecko's going to get a great reception in AOL," said Netscape senior vice president Jim Martin. "There is a lot of great upside in the wealth of interactive content capabilities we're going to see with the Time Warner deal. And there are third parties too that are going to take advantage of it."

Martin cited Gateway's new Touch Pad Web appliance, launched in conjunction with AOL on Friday, as one example.