Can Dreamcast's browser meet expectations?

Sega's new Dreamcast game machine can browse the Web, but users may encounter a less-than-dreamy Web browsing experience when using the device.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
4 min read
Sega's new Dreamcast game machine can browse the Web, but users may encounter a less-than-dreamy Web browsing experience when using the device.

Sega and Planetweb, which makes the Dreamcast browser, acknowledge that the device's browser has some drawbacks. These include faulty support for JavaScript; lack of support for Java, a cross-platform programming language found on many Web sites; and an interface that may not live up to users' expectations formed by years of using standard browsers made by Netscape Communications and Microsoft.

JavaScript is a popular Web scripting language developed by Netscape Communications for performing actions on Web pages without user input, such as launching pop-up windows or scrolling text.

Both companies said that there are inherent limitations with a browser built for a small device, and that some improvements for the browser are in the works.

Dreamcast's browsing woes come as many predict a future in which Internet access will be dominated by alternative, non-PC devices. Internet behemoths such as AOL and Microsoft are gearing up to aggressively offer their Net services via such devices.

But so far, there has been a lot more talk about alternative devices than delivery, as companies like Sega struggle with the challenge of cramming a browser powerful enough to negotiate full-featured Web sites into small, non-PC devices.

Sega is hardly alone. Microsoft has faced similar issues with its WebTV unit, flip-flopping on its plans to implement Web technologies like Java and RealNetworks' streaming media software.

Deadline dilemma
Part of the Dreamcast Web browsing problem is that development of the browser was rushed, according to Planetweb, which makes software for consumer electronics devices and which developed the browser for Sega. The other part of the problem lies in inflated expectations from longtime users of full-featured browsers, the company said.

Planetweb's accelerated production schedule--Sega contracted the company to create the browser in May--resulted in a faulty implementation of JavaScript, according to a spokesperson for Planetweb.

Sega said that users were encountering problems with JavaScript because the Dreamcast browser supports an outdated version of the technology.

"If a user is trying to use the latest version of JavaScript from a server, there will be bugs," said Sega spokesperson Charles Bellfield. Bellfield said there is a similar situation with the browser's support for Macromedia's Flash animation technology, and that Sega plans to update support for both technologies before the holiday season.

He also said Sega plans to provide browser updates about six times per year.

"The challenge we face is defining the technologies that we incorporate within the Web browser and the fact that the Internet introduces new technologies very, very quickly," Bellfield said.

When it announced the browser on September 7, Planetweb highlighted its JavaScript support as a key feature of the small browser, along with a parental content filtering feature; support for Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), a Web security technology for commercial transactions; and "an easy-to-use navigational control."

JavaScript bugs
Most of the time, Dreamcast users will not have trouble viewing pages that use JavaScript, Planetweb told CNET News.com. But the company acknowledges that some users are complaining that JavaScript content will not load onto the machine, or will crash the browser altogether.

Planetweb is working on fixes for those bugs, a spokesperson said.

A second missing piece of the Dreamcast browsing experience is support for Java, Sun Microsystems' cross-platform computer programming language, which is commonly used on Web pages for more complex and powerful applications like word processors or calculators.

Planetweb and Sega are working on support for Java, the companies said. They would not specify a time frame for delivery.

The companies also acknowledged that some users may be frustrated coming to the Dreamcast browser's user interface from PC browsers.

Planetweb said that users of small Internet-enabled devices may have to square their expectations with the realities of those devices' limitations and the benefits of their low price and small size.

"There's a trade-off," said Doug Young, vice president of sales for Planetweb. "This is easy to use, and you can do basic functions and get anywhere on the Web. But when you make things easier, people who expect the full complexity and functionality of a personal computer will not get the fulfillment."

The browser problems come in the wake of unrelated troubles in which some faulty Sega titles, including a browser disc, were shipped from manufacturers.

In a separate problem for Dreamcast, an advisory posted to the Bugtraq security mailing list warned of a vulnerability in Dreamcast's email reader. The advisory claims that a malicious email sender can lock a user out of his or her email account by sending a message with an extremely long subject line.

Bellfield said that Sega had not been able to replicate the problem, and was continuing to investigate it.

"If it's a bug, it will be fixed," Bellfield said.