Newest Communicator takes aim at Windows

Netscape introduces features in the newest Communicator 4.5 suite that use Windows to draw users to its site and services.

Paul Festa
Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
4 min read
With the latest version of its Web browsing software suite,
Netscape Communications is trying to beat Microsoft at its own game.

Microsoft has reaped gains in market share--as well as attracting the aggressive pursuit by the Justice Department--for its integration of its Internet Explorer browser with Windows, its ubiquitous operating system.

With the second Source code for the masses beta release of Netscape's Communicator 4.5 suite, Netscape is introducing so-called Windows-friendly features that use the operating system to make Netscape software and services easier for users to choose and subsequently return to on a regular basis.

In one instance, the "Windows-friendly" Communicator overrides a Windows tendency to call up Internet Explorer even if the user has already named Navigator the default browser.

The new version also presents a dialog box during installation asking the user to grant default status to a string of Netscape applications and services, including the Navigator browser, the Netcenter portal, and the Messenger email client.

Some analysts claimed that users have long had similar opportunities to specify the default browser.

"It seems like small potatoes. It doesn't seem like much of a change," said John Robb, analyst with Gomez Advisors.

But Communicator product manager David Bottoms stressed that yesterday's release marked the first time Netscape offered users such a dialog box as part of the installation process.

"Up until now, Windows has typically bundled IE, and everyone using Windows 95, 98, or NT has had IE as the default browser," Bottoms said. "We actually allow the user to choose whether to make the browser the default or not by presenting them with this dialog box."

Bottoms also said that the new version preempts a Windows dialog box that asks non-Explorer users if they would like to make Explorer their default browser.

The new release also gives users easier and more immediate access through buttons on the operating system interface to Netscape services such as the Netscape member directory and address book, Netscape-branded Web searching, and Netcenter's "Smart Update" service.

Seizing on the language of "choice," Microsoft criticized the new Communicator version not only for its default features, but also for the degree to which Communicator users are tied to Netscape's Netcenter portal site.

"This is, quite frankly, a smoke screen," said Mike Nichols, group product manager for Windows at Microsoft. "They're saying that they're offering consumers choice, but in reality they're tying your PC in a proprietary way to their portal business."

Nichols was especially critical of a feature that he said extends past Communicator preferences and makes Netcenter the default home page even for an Internet Explorer browser installed on the same machine.

"During the set-up process, they ask if you want to set Netcenter as the default home page," Nichols said. "That not only changes it for Navigator but for IE, which is a really strange thing for users. I've never personally seen something like that, and it's questionable how much confusion that might cause."

Netscape has gone to great lengths in recent months to integrate the Netcenter Web site with its Communicator suite. This integration includes keyword searching in the browser address bar that results in Netscape search and directory pages, a button on the browser interface that leads to a Netcenter personalization page, and integration between Netcenter-based address databases and the Messenger address book.

Some of these new integration features have raised the ire not only of Netscape's competitors, but of users and analysts as well.

The keyword searching feature, for instance, caused controversy when it was first introduced because it eliminated a commonly used short-cut to sites with generic names, such as "www.scripting.com." In the past, users could access such a site merely by typing the word "scripting" into the URL address bar.

But starting with the first Communicator 4.5 beta, users accustomed to typing generic terms into their URL address bar found themselves instead whisked off to a Netcenter directory page on whatever that generic term described. Webmasters of sites with generic domain names and some users cried foul, and resentment over that feature appears to linger.

"As a user, I am not too pleased about the integration between the browser and the portal," Gomex analyst Robb said. "It's not something I get a lot of benefit out of, and the keyword searching breaks a habit pattern that people have built up over time."

As for the "Windows-friendly" features, Robb was pessimistic that they would result in increased market share for Netscape. Netscape, once the dominant browser provider, has seen its market share dwindle to just over half since Microsoft's aggressive entry into the browser space. The integration of the portal and the browser is largely aimed at stemming the market share losses and shoring up the company's position.

"I don't see much helping them at this point, and integration with the OS is not something that's going to win them a lot of kudos," Robb said. "For all intents and purposes, innovation with the browser has ended. It's finished. Innovation is now at the server side. Services provided by vendors--that's where all the thinking and hard work is being done."

The latest release of Communicator 4.5 also includes improved support for Internet Message Access Protocol. New features let users import mail and address book information from other mail clients. Another mail feature allows users to store mail on a central server and lets them download attachments on demand.

The final shipping release of Communicator 4.5 is expected this fall. A separate effort is under way in conjunction with Mozilla.org to produce a beta version of Communicator 5.0 by year's end.

Netscape last month released Communicator 4.06. Billed as a "maintenance release," the version included a number of features, including "Smart Browsing" tools such as keyword searching in the browser, that had been anticipated for Communicator 4.5.