Staff Writer, CNET News.com
In the market for a hybrid engine? Netscape's new Web browser might be just the ticket.
As of 8 a.m. PST Tuesday, Netscape fans were test-driving a prototype Netscape browser that runs on two different browsing engines: the Mozilla Foundation's Gecko engine, which powers up the Mozilla, Firefox and older Netscape browsers, and Microsoft's Internet Explorer engine, which many consider the de facto Web standard.
The prototype's release follows earlier reports that the AOL unit planned a comeback for the Netscape browser and portal, as well as indications that the new browser would include some surprises under the hood.
Netscape is beginning testing of a prototype browser that runs two different browsing engines—Mozilla's Gecko and Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
The ability to let people switch between IE and Gecko could help Netscape capitalize on the success of upstart Firefox.
It also follows a years-long pattern of browser bet-hedging in which AOL has maintained its Netscape browser unit while supporting Microsoft's competing IE browser.
As part of the settlement of its antitrust dispute with Microsoft, AOL renewed its license to use IE with its proprietary online service. AOL in 2001 briefly considered browsing software that would switch between engines. More recently, AOL said it would build a standalone browser based on IE.
AOL's motivation in resuscitating the Netscape browser comes down to the same reason it acquired Netscape in the first place: the portal. AOL expects to reap revenue from the free browser by directing more people to Netscape.com, just as Microsoft has turned its MSN portal into a Web heavyweight in large part through Internet Explorer.
The ability to let people switch between IE and Gecko could help Netscape capitalize on the success of Firefox. While IE comes preinstalled on the vast majority of computers and many Web sites are written specifically to work with the Microsoft browser, Mozilla-based browsers have won a following as IE has battled chronic security woes.
Microsoft's market share slide
Tallies released last week by Dutch Web traffic analyst OneStat.com showed that IE had dipped below the 90 percent market share mark for the first time in years, confirming a downward trend seen in other surveys released since millions of Web surfers started trying out Firefox. OneStat's survey indicated that Firefox has picked up what market share IE has lost.
Now Netscape has to find a way to differentiate itself both from the IE browser that comes default on nearly all computers and from the Firefox browser that originated at Netscape.
Before it was acquired by AOL, Netscape launched the Mozilla open-source effort that produced Firefox. AOL owner Time Warner spun off the Mozilla Foundation as a nonprofit last year.
With Tuesday's release, Netscape is betting that ensuring site compatibility through the IE option, providing general surfing security with the default Gecko engine, and offering an easier interface for some of Firefox's more advanced features will make the browser an attractive option for mainstream Web surfers.
"What this release allows us to do is offer the compatibility of having IE if Web sites are optimized for IE, but it also allows the user to have the control and security of Mozilla browsers," said a source close to Netscape's browser effort. "We've taken all the advanced capabilities available in other browsers and made them more intuitive and usable."
The Netscape prototype, available to people who signed up in recent weeks on the Netscape portal, doesn't actually include a copy of IE. Instead, it takes advantage of the IE version installed with most Windows operating systems to let people view specific pages in IE by selecting a drop-down menu option. Users also can opt to browse with IE by default.
The prototype works only with Windows. Netscape has yet to decide whether it will support other operating systems in future releases, said the source close to the browser project.
New browser features
Features brought to the fore in the new Netscape browser include tabs, which open on the first installation of the software and absorb pop-up windows if users don't opt to block them. Starting up the browser also prompts people to use the browser's "Form Fill" application, which lets them store information frequently requested by Web forms.
The new browser's customizable interface uses Firefox's RSS (Really Simple Syndication) capabilities to scroll news headlines or stock tickers in the browser's toolbar.
Netscape provided a prototype copy to CNET News.com, but a representative declined to comment on its release, when the final version was expected, how it would be named and numbered, or when the related Netscape portal redesign would launch.
Mozilla said it welcomed the release, which is based on pre-1.0 versions of Firefox. The final release of the new Netscape browser will be based on Firefox 1.0.
One leader in the Mozilla effort defended Firefox against Netscape's claim that it was geared toward more advanced users, and that features built into the new Netscape browser required the installation of plug-ins and extensions to work with Firefox.
"There are trade-offs you can make in constructing a browser," said Chris Hofmann, director of engineering for Mozilla. "Firefox has made a number of them so that you can still have a small download."Among the 159 extensions posted to the Firefox extension site—a site published in its test or "beta" version—is one that lets Firefox users view sites in IE, just as the new Netscape does.
A tit-for-tat extension lets IE users view pages in Firefox.
Few worries for Microsoft
Microsoft welcomed the news that Netscape would be letting people browse with IE and said it fit with the company's vision of IE as a software development platform.
"We are very pleased to see a vibrant ecosystem involving hundreds of partners and independent software vendors continue to develop on the IE platform," Microsoft said in a statement. "The applications they are building deliver some of the most popular browser features and add-ons for customers to download and enjoy today."
One analyst said Netscape might be on the right track with the hybrid engine approach, but cautioned that it could also be targeting a very small sliver of the market.
"They must be trying the 'best of both worlds' strategy," said Ross Rubin, analyst with the NPD Group in New York City. "Sometimes that works, like when Sony supported both 'dash' and 'plus' DVD rewriteable formats. But if you're willing to put up with IE's security weaknesses for the sake of compatibility, that diminishes the motivation to switch."
"I know of another browser that can switch into IE mode," Rubin added. "It's called Internet Explorer."
Sources close to the Netscape browser responded that the default Gecko setting would not expose surfers to IE-based traps and vulnerabilities.
They also said, responding to a report by BetaNews, that much of the development work on the new Netscape browser was done by Canadian software company Mercurial Communications, and that future versions of the browser would bring in development by other technology partners.