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Netscape site gets new look for browser update

The Internet software company releases a third preview version of its long-delayed Netscape 6.0 Web browser and unveils a Web site redesign.

Netscape Communications today released a third preview version of its long-delayed Web browser update and unveiled a Web site redesign.

As previously reported, spokesman Michael LaGuardia has promised a public-release version of the Netscape 6.0 Web browser before the end of the year, although he said the company is not prepared to reveal an exact deadline.

The Web site overhaul offers an improved interface that is easier to navigate, said Susan Mernit, Netscape's vice president of programming and design production. She said the redesign also offers substantive changes to better target the company's chosen market of professional, at-work Web surfers. In addition, the redesigned Netscape.com site provides deeper integration with the company's new browser, she said.

The legendary Netscape browser's 6.0 version promises to deliver big technical advances over earlier iterations, with the company touting it as the most standards-compliant browser to date. With Microsoft having destroyed Netscape's once-dominant market lead, however, some question whether the latest release may be too little, too late.

"Nobody is paying much attention to Netscape these days," said Barry Parr, an analyst with International Data Corp. (IDC). "Nobody is eagerly awaiting the features promised."

Netscape's LaGuardia vigorously defended the new product, which was conceived as a radical overhaul of the company's path-breaking Navigator browser--the product that effectively launched the World Wide Web.

"We made some hard decisions to take the browser into the future, and we stand by them," LaGuardia said, downplaying delays in the project. "We spent a lot of time making the product right, making it the best there is."

Netscape 6.0 preview 3 will have a new look over previous versions, LaGuardia said, based on feedback from preview 2 beta testers, who had the opportunity to try and design a variety of new interfaces, or "skins." Preview 3 won't offer a broad range of new features, he added, saying this version is primarily aimed at addressing stability and performance issues.

After introducing a series of upgrades to its original Navigator software and facing increasing competitive pressure from Microsoft, Netscape decided nearly three years ago to rebuild the browser from the ground up through an open-source development project dubbed Mozilla.

That project has created some closely watched technology, notably the Gecko Web rendering engine, which has been licensed by a prominent group of developers for use in new Internet products, including handheld devices. The overhaul proved far more time-consuming than Netscape anticipated, and the project became mired in difficulties.

Since then, Microsoft has come out with several updates to its Internet Explorer browser, while Netscape has issued only minor upgrades to its version 4.7 product, choosing to skip a version 5 altogether.

Mozilla, which has long enjoyed the near-unanimous backing of the Web standards community for its commitment to producing a standards-compliant browser, has seen some support crumble in recent weeks because of continued delays. The Web Standards Project (WaSP) this summer posted an open letter lambasting Mozilla for failing to produce a browser well into its third year.

"These grand (software) rewrites never seem to deliver," IDC's Parr said.

Complicating Netscape's situation is the company's November 1998 purchase by America Online. AOL has pushed Netscape's Web presence, dubbed NetCenter, as an at-work Web destination to complement its own predominantly at-home audience. Today's site overhaul is intended to build on that role, Netscape's Mernit said.

"Our strategy hasn't changed," she said. "This design is just a better reflection of it."

She said the new site will feature a new personal finance channel as well as numerous changes to ease site navigation.

While AOL has said Netscape plays a significant role in its business strategies, analysts say they are still waiting for the two companies to fully embrace each other. AOL, for example, has an agreement with Microsoft to feature its Internet Explorer browser on the AOL service.

"The bigger question is whether AOL is committed to the Netscape browser," Parr said. "When are they going to make Netscape the default on their service?"