SAN FRANCISCO (05/01/2000) - Don't be surprised if Netscape 6 pops up on a TV set or mall kiosk in a couple of years.
Netscape is back. After a three-year hiatus (not counting point releases), the browser that helped put the World Wide Web in gear is revving up again, so radically altered that its creators decided not only to change its name (to what people were calling it anyway), but also to skip a release number. Instead of Netscape Communicator 5, the moniker you might have expected, the product is now called Netscape 6. We looked at the first public beta, released in early April; there's been no word on when the final version will arrive.
The changes are dramatic. Improvements include a slimmed-down footprint (the typical download, which doesn't include Java, is less than half the size of Communicator 4.7's); a slicked-up user interface; the only current third-party e-mail client for America Online; an intriguing integration of Web search tools and instant messaging; and much more. Once the various bugs are ironed out (and right now, it has quite a few), the upgrade should be a no-brainer for current Netscape users. But whether Netscape can woo back those who've defected to Microsoft Internet Explorer over the last few years is another question (Microsoft's market share now exceeds 80 percent, according to the Web research service StatMarket.com). Aside from the e-mail support for AOL, slightly better privacy features, and such frills as a command for translating Web pages into other languages and the ability to customize the browser interface, Netscape offers little that current Internet Explorer users don't already enjoy.
Slim But Robust
In many ways, Netscape 6 is about getting back to basics. For starters, the basic browser without Java is compact in a way browsers haven't been since the glory days of Navigator 2. And even with Java, the full download of Netscape 6 tops out at 16.5MB, still smaller than the 18MB for Communicator 4.7 and 17.2MB for a typical IE install. Netscape 6 got thin in part by dropping Communicator's least-used components (when was the last time you invoked Netcaster?) but also by abandoning Communicator's code base in favor of the newer Gecko engine, which is both smaller and faster than its Communicator predecessor. Complicated Web pages seem to load faster (we could not test this observation formally).
The attractive, contemporary-looking interface offers many more customization options than the competition. Most prominent among them is My Sidebar--a collection of small, tabbed windows (Netscape calls them tabs) on the left-hand side of the screen that hold Web information and applications you want to access quickly from within the browser. These customized minipages are somewhat akin to the Web clippings you get on Internet-enabled mobile devices. Netscape 6 comes preloaded with a handful of tabs, including ones for CNN headlines and for Netcenter stock quotes; and you can add more from any Web site that creates them, by using free programming tools that Netscape provides. Netscape says that nearly 500 tabs were available at launch. If you don't want to see My Sidebar, it collapses with a simple mouse click on the side of its frame--no complicated menu item checkoffs required.
If you've forgotten that America Online Inc. acquired Netscape Communications Corp. last year, Netscape 6 provides several visible memory jogs. One of the preset My Sidebar tabs, Buddy List, lets you send instant messages from within the browser to fellow AOL/Netscape Instant Messenger subscribers, even when you're not sitting at your own computer. Because Buddy Lists are now stored on Netscape's servers online, you can access them from any NIM-equipped machine.
The Buddy List integration doesn't end there. When you compose messages in Netscape Mail, the software will check for recipients who are on your Buddy List. If they're online, you can send the e-mail as an instant message and start a chat session, circumventing some time-consuming e-mail exchanges.
Netscape Mail delivers several other brand-new goodies, not least among them the ability to send and receive AOL e-mail--it's the only current third-party e-mail client that lets you do this. Like most e-mail programs, Netscape lets you manage multiple AOL, IMAP, and POP3 e-mail accounts. But unlike the competition, Netscape generates separate in-boxes and folders for each account--a nice feature for people who would like to keep business and personal e-mail separate or who share a computer with others. A popular feature of most newer e-mail programs is included as well: When you read your e-mail, Netscape automatically stores the senders' addresses so you can send them mail later by simply typing the name in the To: field when you start composing. But one important feature is missing--rules that allow you to sort messages into folders as they arrive.
Netscape has worked on its search features, with mixed results. As in Navigator 4.x, the field where you enter URLs doubles as a search field; just enter keywords, and you get search results. If you enter a well-known name--of a company, university, product, or even city--Netscape will either go straight to its Web site or present a list of likely URLs. Also, as before, you can perform certain specific searches by using special keywords. But new keywords make this feature more useful than ever. For example, if you are shopping for something, type shop or buy in the Search bar followed by the name of the item; Netscape will then bring back results from AOL's shopping search engine.
If the first set of results works well for you, you will love Netscape Search.
But if it doesn't, things can get confusing in a hurry. You can press a button to receive additional results, which start with a list of sites reviewed in Netscape's Open Directory project (this project is a Yahoo-like open-source directory that contains write-ups by volunteer editors). The results also appear in the Search tab of My Sidebar, where they remain until you search on new keywords.
You can refine your search by category--arts, sciences, references, and the like. Eventually, you reach another button, which lets you search with Google, a popular and effective search engine. You can configure Netscape to search several sites at the same time, but some of the tools that it uses (MapQuest and Netscape Jobs, for example) aren't even search engines. Most annoyingly, the browser doesn't let you choose another search engine as the default: You can only bookmark it.
Netscape 6's security options are better than Communicator 4.7's, and they match or exceed those in IE 5.x. You can automate site log-ins via a master password, and easily view and set cookie controls on a site-by-site, cookie-by-cookie basis by clicking the Personal Managers menu item under Tools.
Netscape 6 retains Composer, an entry-level Web-page authoring tool. Other new features are Net2Phone software for PC-to-phone calls, the ability to customize the browser interface's look using Themes, and a translation command for conjuring up computer-generated versions of Web pages in foreign languages.
(Themes were not available with our prerelease copy.)Several built-in irritants are present in addition to the bugs. In a package with so many new features, the lack of tool tips to help people learn the new icons and buttons is glaring. It's not always obvious how to use the new customization options. Also, importing an existing AOL Buddy List isn't the easiest task in the world. That said, Netscape 6 isn't excessively difficult to learn, and as soon as it becomes more stable, users should find it more fun to use than Communicator. If Microsoft's conviction on antitrust violations results in the removal of Internet Explorer from the Windows desktop, Netscape could regain its popularity, if only because it's a slightly quicker download.
Even if Netscape 6 doesn't initially win big on PC desktops, it may achieve success in an increasingly diverse Web-browsing universe. "They have a really strong chance of leveraging that core browser engine," says Jupiter Communications analyst Lydia Loizides, an unabashed Gecko fan.
Netscape 6 is launching simultaneously for the Windows, Macintosh, and Linux platforms, and Gecko has no serious competition from Microsoft's Windows CE in the Web appliance universe, where Linux is rapidly gaining popularity. So, while Netscape 6 may not be the browser for your desktop, don't be surprised if it pops up on a TV set or mall kiosk in a couple of years. This slick, smart browser could still be a contender.
New in Netscape 6
*Small size (8.5MB without Java) can speed up installation.
*Gecko technology renders Web pages rapidly.
*Mail program supports America Online e-mail and multiple accounts.
*Integrates AOL Instant Messenger and e-mail.
*My Sidebar tabs provide users with quick and easy access to customized Web information and applications.
*Password and cookie managers allow you to automate log-ins and protect your privacy on a site-by-site basis.