Slimmed Communicator for handhelds, PDAs

Netscape announces a new layout engine, dubbed "Gecko," intended in part to bring Web browsing to alternative computing devices.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
3 min read
Netscape Communications today announced a new layout engine for Communicator, dubbed "Gecko," intended in part to bring Web browsing to alternative computing devices.

As previously reported by CNET News.com, Netscape unveiled the engine for Communicator 5.0 today at the Builder.com trade show in New Orleans. Netscape also made the engine available to developers worldwide from its DevEdge Online site, with a final version of the engine slated for delivery during the first half of the coming year.

First announced in April, Gecko promises to speed up and slim down Navigator, Communicator's browsing component. The new engine is smaller and "several times faster" than its predecessor, according to Netscape and analysts familiar with the release.

The engine's small size may help Netscape and its proposed buyer, America Online, bring AOL's online service to a new generation of computing devices that are smaller and more portable than a personal computer. AOL's initiative, dubbed "AOL Anywhere," will rely in large part on Sun Microsystems' platform-independent Java programming language, and will bypass Microsoft's dominant Windows operating system.

Although AOL announced its intention to stick with Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser for its proprietary online service--for the time being--Gecko ultimately may have a role to play not only in AOL Anywhere, but in that standard software as well.

The "browsing engine is smaller than 1.4 megabytes, bringing the promise of the Internet to a variety of smaller consumer devices that previously did not have the capacity to run a full-featured browser," Netscape said today in a statement announcing the engine. "Gecko is designed to power numerous consumer devices, including handheld phones, PDAs, fax machines, and TV set-top boxes."

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A crucial aspect of Gecko for use in both those devices and in the AOL proprietary service software is that it is made up of components that can be separated. For example, even at 1.4 MB, the software is too bulky for use in a cellular phone, but a cellular phone maker could carve out only the necessary libraries from the engine, making it smaller still.

AOL already plans to use Gecko in its ICQ messaging client.

Uncompressed, Gecko is closer to 5 MB. But that is still considerably smaller than previous Communicator engines, which were between 8 MB and 10 MB compressed, according to Netscape. Users download the software at the compressed size.

Analysts praised the engine for its size and speed, but pointed out that the software is still in its beta phase and, as a result, has its share of bugs.

"AOL will switch over to Navigator from IE as soon as humanly possible, but looking at Gecko I suspect it will be at least another year," said Jupiter Communications analyst David Card.

Following the April announcement of the engine, Netscape dismayed developers by pushing back the release of the engine beyond the expected release of Communicator 5.0. A groundswell of protest from developers working on Netscape's open source initiative, along with an advocacy group called the Web Standards Project, largely were credited with Netscape's decision to move the release back up to this month.

The full Communicator 5.0 beta, however, is no longer expected by year-end 1998, Netscape acknowledged today. Instead, it is slated for release during the spring of the coming year.

A layout engine, also known as a "renderer," performs the core work of Web browsing, defining how graphics, text, and other Web page elements are laid out in a window. Standards support is a key responsibility of the layout engine, and today's release brings Communicator up to code with HTML 4.0, Cascading Style Sheets 1 (full support), CSS 2 (partial support), the Document Object Model (DOM), Extensible Markup Language (XML) 1.0, the Resource Description Framework (RDF), the Open Java Interface, and image formats .png, .gif, .jpeg, .pjpeg, .art, and .xbm.

The new engine is the first product release from Mozilla.org, a Netscape-supported group shepherding the open source development of the Communicator code. Because it is the product of an open source effort, any software developer will be able to use the engine as an embeddable component once it is released.

Card praised mozilla.org's work.

"Bugs aside, it's a nice demonstration of the technology, and a strong sign that the open source model works really well," Card said.

Netscape scuttled Gecko's original name, "Raptor," following complaints from Raptor Systems. The engine's interim name was "NG Layout," standing for "next generation."

(Builder.com is a property of News.com publisher CNET: The Computer Network.)