In the wake of studies showing its browser market share both declining and advancing in key areas, Netscape Communications has released the shipping version of Communicator 4.5, its Internet software suite.
Version 4.5's features are no surprise to Communicator users. In addition to two public betas of version 4.5, Communicator users also have had the opportunity to sample new search and navigation features, which Netscape categorized under the term "smart browsing." These were included in the 4.06 and 4.07 releases.
The other key changes in version 4.5 are geared toward users who access the Internet from different computers--for example, corporate users who also use the Net from home.
Also included in the final 4.5 release are fixes for privacy holes that revealed users' browsing history, cache, and other private information. Version 4.07 was released to fix the bug, but another bug soon surfaced. Version 4.5 will plug both those holes, according to Communicator senior product manager Micki Seibel.
With smart browsing, the user can type search keywords into the browser's address bar. Those keyword searches may resolve to specific sites, directory pages, or search results pages on Netscape's Netcenter portal.
Netscape tweaked this feature after it caused controversy among Web site owners whose addresses were generic names, Seibel said.
In versions of the browser prior to 4.06 and the first 4.5 beta, single words typed into the address bar would resolve to their ".com," ".org," or ".net" equivalents, according to users' preferences. With the first implementation of smart browsing, a single word--such as "scripting" or "broadcast"--would resolve to an editorially selected related site, or to a Netcenter directory page listing related resources.
Starting with the second beta version and included in the final release, smart browsing first checks for a matching domain name, then for a related Web site, then for a matching Netcenter directory page, and then for an Excite-powered search results page.
Another smart browsing feature, provided in conjunction with Alexa Internet, offers a list of related sites wherever the user surfs. Netscape has refined both the keyword and the "What's Related" databases during the beta period, partially with the aid of user feedback, according to Seibel.
Some users have found that "What's Related" can produce unlikely recommendations.
The third component of smart browsing is support for Web ratings used to block certain sites for child, student, library, or corporate users.
The roaming features have largely to do with Communicator's Messenger email component, and the Collabra newsgroup component that has been folded into Messenger.
Messenger now supports the IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) messaging protocol, which provides faster performance, allows users to download attachments on demand, and lets users work with email offline and synchronize changes between the client and the server the next time they log on, according to Netscape.
Support for the LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) protocol means users can have fuller access to LDAP-based address books and directories. While Communicator has offered auto-complete for email addresses since version 4.0, version 4.5 will auto-complete against any LDAP-based directory, such as those maintained by Four11.com and WhoWhere. LDAP support also will let users change their address book offline and have it synchronized with the server when they log on again.
Support for another Internet standard, the Message Disposition Notification protocol, will let users obtain confirmation that messages they send have been received and opened. A number of proprietary and mutually incompatible notification systems exist already, Seibel said, and MDN is backward-compatible with them.
Messenger's interface has been redone. A three-pane design offers folders, message headers, and the message body at once.
Email searching and filtering have been expanded so users can search or filter on multiple criteria, such as "sender" and "subject."
Seibel said Version 4.5's beta period was the most productive yet for the company's browser team.
"We introduced a quality feedback system," Seibel said. "If the product crashed, a window would pop up asking the user to file an incident report telling us what functions were being used, what operating system they were on, etc. It not only increased the amount of information we got, and the quality of that information, but the speed with which we were able to address problems."
As a result of the new beta process, Netscape implemented more than 4,000 customer suggestions, Seibel said, including bug fixes, performance enhancements, and feature requests.
Netscape has been fielding feature requests of a different sort in another part of its Internet software business, the Mozilla.org operation. Early this year, Netscape began the process of revealing Communicator's source code for the worldwide community of independent developers. While Mozilla.org has been managing the open source development effort, Netscape has been picking and choosing from developer contributions for its own branded product that will be Communicator 5.0.
A beta test of version 5.0, expected by year's end, is on track, Seibel said.
All these efforts come as Netscape reduces its reliance on the browser business to focus on its portal site and its enterprise software. Netscape, once dominant in the browser market, has watched its market share steadily erode to Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. Recent studies have showed that while Navigator is strong in the important corporate market, it has slipped overall.
One study from Zona Research showed Navigator maintaining a 20 percentage point lead over IE in the office. A study from International Data Corporation showed Navigator's market share slipping overall, but maintaining its lead in the medium and large-sized business market.
Not surprisingly, Microsoft took a dim view of the new release.
"Netscape is positioning itself as providing improved ease of use, but apart from a couple of minor features designed to link the browser and the portal, there isn't much there," said Windows product manager Mike Nichols. "Rather than architecting ease of use throughout the browser, they've provided a thin coat of paint."
Nichols outlined three areas in which he said Communicator failed to live up to long-promised improvements.
In the area of standards support, he said version 4.5 failed to provide advanced support for the Document Object Model, HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) 4.0, CSS (cascading style sheets) 2.0, and XML (Extensible Markup Language).
Additional areas where Nichols faulted version 4.5 were componentization, which lets developers use individual components--or pieces of code--from the application in their own work; and integration of the browser with the operating system.
Seibel responded that Netscape has long promised some of these improvements for Communicator 5.0, and the firm has never planned or promised to integrate the browser with the OS. She also defended the scope of version 4.5's innovations.
"This is more than just a bells-and-whistles release," Seibel said. "Smart Browsing was a huge advancement for Navigator in the browser space, and we also made major advances in the Messenger space. As for standards, we have done more to support IMAP and LDAP than Microsoft has in Outlook, Outlook Express, or Exchange."
Communicator 4.5 can be downloaded from Netcenter for Windows 95, 98, NT 3.5.1 and 4.0, the Macintosh, and all versions of Unix. Communicator no longer supports Windows 3.1. Those who only want the stand-alone browser must download Version 4.07, which does not include a fix for the second privacy hole fixed in Communicator 4.5.