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Relase Late, Release Later - Netscape Navigator 6

When Steve Case introduced the Pre-Release of the long awaited Netscape Navigator 6.0 at last week's Internet World conference in Los Angeles, proclaiming "The Magic is Back", veteran Net watchers could be excused for fighting to contain the giggles.

The much delayed arrival of the latest Netscape browser, nearly a year and a half after the company's last upgrade, comes at a time when Navigator is fighting for survival against the dominant Microsoft Internet Explorer.

A much criticized development project that dragged on for what seemed like forever, become nothing less than a Silicon Valley legend. The browser that had won the hearts of surfers and helped spark the explosive growth of the World Wide Web was reduced to a punch line of cocktail party banter - the ultimate vaporware.

Despite clear indications that Netscape was in the process of loosing market share to Microsoft and in imminent danger of loosing the browser war with Redmond - AOL was unable or, as some would later suggest, unwilling, to push the product out the door.

Internal critics blamed poor leadership by AOL officials, who, it was suggested, had little understanding of the realities of software development. Morale at Netscape's Palo Alto headquarters plummeted to subterranean depths. A number of respected programmers quit the project, refusing to participate in what one called "a debacle."

Management's widely praised decision to open Navigator's source code to developers working with, ended up having far less effect than management had hoped, despite drawing considerable media attention to the project.

AOL officials complained that the open-source community wasn't interested in helping. If that was the case, some observers countered, it was probably because all of the serious programmers were off playing with Linux, and were unlikely to be sympathetic to the plight of America Online anyway. A battle which some observers had labeled a contest between the open-source movement and Bill Gates' commitment to closed code failed to materialize.

Meanwhile, of course, Microsoft was having troubles of it's own - in the form of the Anti-Trust case pursued by the US Justice Department and a mountain of bad publicity.

But that didn't stop Explorer.

For every month Navigator sat on the shelf in development, the Microsoft browser gained market share by leaps and bounds, until by some estimates Internet Explorer controlled eighty percent of the world browser market.

Early indications are that the Net community is less than impressed by the long awaited browser.

Three years ago, a Navigator release would have been occasion for wild speculation on discussion groups and heavy traffic at the Netcenter site.This week, the reaction, apart from mild interest among browser enthusiasts, has been more of a collective yawn than anything else.

In our own limited testing Navigator 6 comes across as a nice application, but not the revolutionary new product we were promised.

The America Online influence is obvious of course, in the browsers graphical interface, which has been completely reworked from previous editions, a change likely to annoy die-hard Navigator fans accustomed to the old interface. AOL has a reputation in the industry for building web sites and software calculated to be visually appealing to web surfers. Although Navigator 6 lacks the cheerful pizzazz of the AOL browser, it is certainly not the monstrosity some critics had predicted.

In later releases Netscape plans to allow users to install skins to customize the appearance of the browser, a neat option that Net users seem to like - if the success of the popular NeoPlanet Browser is any gauge.

Although the interface changes are likely to be first thing users notice, the most significant modification to Netscape 6 is under the hood.

The Gecko rendering engine, the technology, responsible for the way the browser reads and displays web pages, is designed to comply with the latest standards, a fact that will not escape watching web developers. Gecko offers full support for important emerging standards like Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and Exstensible Markup Language (XML).

Designed to operate on a stand-alone basis, the Gecko engine has already generated considerable interest. AOL announced licensing deals with IBM, Sun Microsystems and Intel.

Netscape 6 also includes a number of prominent features you can expect to become standard issue on all browsers.

The "My Toolbar Feature" opens a minibrowser window within the main browser, giving users access to their bookmarks and channels. A similar feature on Explorer 5 has become very popular with users.

Another important addition is the translation feature which translates web pages from other languages into English and vice-versa. This showed markedly better success than some of the free translation services available on the web in our tests.

If you're thinking about trying this download it's important to remember that Netscape 6 is pre-release software. This is not a stable product that has been carefully tested and debugged. Expect frequent crashes and otherwise erratic behavior. If you don't have experience beta-testing new software, we recommended you wait for the full release, which is expected sometime late this summer.

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