America Online (AOL) on Tuesday released a preview version of a new Netscape Web browser that is based on the open-source Firefox Web browser, but also supports Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) browser engine.
IE is part of Windows and is used by the great majority of Web users. Many Web sites have been designed specifically to work with the Microsoft browser and may not work correctly in browsers using other engines, including the Gecko engine in Firefox.
While current Firefox users may switch to IE when they have a problem with a Web site, AOL's Netscape unit found a different solution. If a Web site does not display well in the standard Firefox-based configuration in Netscape, it takes two clicks to display the page using the IE engine. The browser stores engine preferences per Web site.
The Netscape browser does not actually include the IE engine, but uses the engine that is part of Windows. As such, the browser only works on Windows computers.
AOL also enhanced support for RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds, which also exists in Firefox. The Netscape browser can display rotating headlines from RSS feeds in a special task bar. RSS feeds are an increasingly popular way to syndicate headlines and sometimes entire articles from Web sites.
The Netscape preview is only available to a select group of testers. A public beta and final release of the new browser is planned for next year, a person familiar with AOL's plans said. The browser and a new e-mail client will eventually replace the current Netscape offering, an AOL spokesman said earlier this month.
Netscape was the most popular browser in the early years of the Web. However, its market share started crumbling when Microsoft introduced IE in the mid-1990s. The acquisition of Netscape by Microsoft rival AOL and a lengthy antitrust trial could not change the browser's fortune.
Analysts said that the death knell was sounding for the Netscape browser after AOL last year laid off essentially all of its Netscape software developers and ended development work on the Mozilla browser technology.
Development work was taken over by the Mozilla open source project, which was originally started in early 1998 by Netscape and continued when AOL acquired Netscape later that year. Last year, the people behind Mozilla created a foundation, largely funded by a US$2 million pledge from AOL, to build, support and promote Mozilla products.
AOL breathed new air into Netscape with the release of Netscape 7.2 in August. That product is based on Mozilla 1.7, a suite of products that includes a browser, e-mail client, Internet Relay Chat client and Web page editor. AOL confirmed plans for the new Firefox-based browser and Tuesday's preview release earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Microsoft's IE continues to dominate the browser market. It has been losing market share since earlier this year with the advent of Firefox, according to the San Diego Web metrics company WebSideStory Inc. Firefox 1.0 was released on Nov. 9.
As of last Friday, IE held 91.57 percent of the U.S. browser market, down from 92.86 percent a month earlier, according to WebSideStory. Firefox stood at 4.2 percent on Friday, up from 3.0 percent a month earlier, according to WebSideStory.