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New features delay Netscape Communicator 5.0

Netscape decides to hold up the latest version of its browser to add new features, even though now-dominant browser rival Microsoft released its newest version months ago.

Netscape has decided to hold up the latest version of its browser to add new features, even though now-dominant browser rival Microsoft released its newest version months ago.

Two new features are in part responsible for making America Online's Netscape unit miss its summer deadline for the first trial version of Communicator 5.0. One of these merges email and instant messaging functionality. The other introduces a technology for writing the browser's user interface.

Netscape is far behind its main browser competitor, Microsoft, in two areas where it once led: technology and market share. Although it commanded about 80 percent of the desktop browser market just a few years ago, Netscape is now down to a minority position.

Technologically, Microsoft has pulled ahead in crucial areas such as support for industry standards and the delivery of a browser architecture composed of separable components. As a result, companies like AOL--Netscape's owner--find it easier to combine Microsoft's browser with their own software applications.

Netscape declined to comment on unannounced features in Communicator 5.0, a Netscape-branded product based on the work done at Mozilla.org. Mozilla is Netscape's group in charge of shepherding the open-source development of the Communicator source code. Netscape can pick and choose from among the features posted by Mozilla developers for the Communicator release.

The open-source development project distributes the underlying source code to Communicator for free but licenses its use to other companies and individuals.

One feature Netscape has chosen for its new browser will build instant messaging into the Communicator email client and tie both messaging technologies directly into the browser interface. With version 5.0, browser users will be able to view their lists of contacts in a pane. A message sent to a contact who is online will be delivered in the form of an instant message; but that same message will be delivered as email if the user is offline.

Another new feature in Communicator 5.0 is the use of the brand new Extensible User Interface Language (XUL, pronounced "zool"). XUL lets developers use common Web-building languages rather than computer coding languages to create a browser's graphical user interface, including menu items, buttons, and the address bar.

Based on Extensible Markup Language (XML), a metalanguage for the creation of other industry- or task-specific languages, XUL should let Netscape write its user interface once and have it work across multiple platforms. With traditional computer programming languages, the interface has to be written separately for each computer operating system.

Ironically, a technology that should save browser makers time in the future has helped cause Netscape to be late this time around.

"XUL wasn't in the original product specification," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But we saw that it would be so impactful. It's part of what makes 5.0 such a breakthrough product, and it's an example of something we added that's taken a little extra time."

AOL last week released Communicator 4.7 with minor additions and bug fixes.