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Netscape updating current browser while new version lags

Although Communicator 5.0 remains woefully behind schedule, Netscape is moving ahead with an update to Communicator 4.7.

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Netscape Communications will shortly release a new and improved version of Communicator, but it promises to be a big disappointment for fans anxiously awaiting the long-promised fifth generation of the Web browser.

Although Communicator 5.0 remains woefully behind schedule, Netscape is moving ahead with an update to Communicator 4.7.

An unofficial version of Communicator 4.71 was posted on the MR Tech Web site this week by software consultant Mel Reyes. Netscape confirmed that the software is authentic and said it plans to announce a Communicator 4.71 trial version in the near future.

A Netscape spokeswoman said version 4.71 is a "maintenance" release within the normal product development cycle. She declined to discuss specific changes incorporated into the release, but she said the new version does not involve a major overhaul.

She added that the pending 4.71 update is not a sign that the deadline for Communicator 5.0 has been pushed back yet again.

"I wouldn't jump to that conclusion," she said.

The spokeswoman refused to discuss why Netscape is continuing to tinker with Communicator 4.7 while simultaneously promising to produce a completely rebuilt browser with its much-anticipated version 5.0.

The unofficial release of Communicator 4.71 comes just days after the open source group Mozilla.org--which is developing a next-generation Communicator browser in parallel with Netscape--announced its first full-featured browser, dubbed M12.

Netscape's development team, by contrast, has been unable to get to first base.

Since missing a summer deadline for Communicator 5.0, Netscape has seen Communicator 4.7 continue to lose market share to Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, whose trial of version 5.5 was released earlier this month at the Microsoft Download Center.

To catch up with Microsoft, Netscape is rebuilding the product from the ground up, replacing its legacy software with a leaner, more standards-compliant architecture composed of separable components that developers can use more easily with their applications.

Communicator 5.0 is based on Gecko, the Communicator browsing engine responsible for rendering graphics and text. It uses Extensible User Interface Language (XUL), a new technology for creating the user interface with Web programming languages rather than with computer coding languages. XUL is expected to make it easier for developers to create Mozilla-based browsers for multiple computer operating systems.

But the delays have clearly hurt Netscape's efforts to hold on to its dwindling market share and to remain a credible alternative to Microsoft's IE. At last count, Netscape's Communicator 5.0 wasn't expected until at least February.

In the meantime, Netscape junkies can check out the incremental changes offered in Communicator 4.71.

MR Tech's Reyes said the new version appears to fix some of the documented bugs in version 4.7 and offers some speed enhancements and beefed up security.

"My theory on the whole thing is that as they have been coding and re-coding Mozilla, they have been finding many potentially hazardous functions and calls, fixing them, and rolling them out with each minor release," he said.

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