Netscape 6? Things can only get better (we hope)

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The Independent Online

In many ways, it would be unfair to write a "review" of Netscape 6 and its browser component, Navigator, at this time. It only came out in beta (Preview Release 1) a few weeks back, and beta products always have obvious problems that are, usually, ironed out before the final release.

After a brief tour around the web with the latest browser from the minds at Netscape, I found several glaring and conspicuous errors that cannot possibly make it into the final browser (we hope). For example, Netscape 6 has the habit of sometimes placing multiple spaces before and after links, of continuing the line of underlined words (even links) for several spaces after the text, and of refusing to redraw the screen when closing control panels. Then, of course, there is the constant crashing.

However, these errors are all symptoms of an early software release and should not be seen as indicative of a bad final product.

Still, the foundations of the new browser are evident, and after taking close to three years to release a major upgrade in their browser, many people are eager to see what took them so long. So this is not a review so much as it is a look at things to come, with a little bit of commentary thrown in for good measure.

The new Netscape browser is actually the culmination of work by Netscape's Mozilla groupwhich has been developing an open source browser over a period of two years. A few months back, the Mozilla group finally released a stable version of the browser and Netscape picked this up to make Netscape 6.

 

The Good

Like Internet Explorer 5 for the Mac, Netscape 6 is sticking to the rules. The new Gecko rendering engine was created to comply with the latest web standards, including HTML 4, CSS-1, XML, JavaScript, and the W3C Document Object Model (DOM).

This is welcome news to members of the web development community, who have been suffering for many years trying to make the incompatible browsers play nicely together on their sites. The Gecko rendering engine is an amazing piece of work, and the many people who devoted their time and effort to its creation should be very proud of their craftsmanship. It is small, extremely fast, and the most standards-compliant rendering engine I have yet seen.

As an example of how well it sticks to the standards, another writer recently used my own site as an example of how Netscape 6 was having trouble rendering CSS that IE5 had no problems withhttp://www.cnn.com/ 2000/TECH/computing/04/11/net6.interface.idg/index.html. It turns out, though, that the error was mine. CSS is case sensitive, that is, "a" is not the same as "A". While other browsers tend to ignore this fact, the Gecko rendering engine does not. So, a typo in my code caused the page to render improperly in Netscape 6.

The lesson: with new browsers like Netscape 6 coming along, web developers will have to be more careful to dot their <i>'s and close their <p>'s when creating code.

The Bad

There are several minor annoyances to be found with Netscape 6. For example, the fact that you cannot set the base font size to anything below 12pt, or that the ability to set default link and background colours seems to be missing. There are also several features, like auto-form fill, that would be nice to see included. But these all pale in comparison with the major problem with this browser.

Unlike past browsers, which were designed to help you access the web, Navigator 6 continues the unfortunate trend set in Navigator 4.7 of trying to funnel web surfers into Netscape's site, regardless of their needs. Netscape has suffered several blows over the last two years, not the least of which was its acquisition by AOL, and the hand of Netscape's new master is felt in this browser. The browser is no longer a tool to allow web surfers the freedom to seek out content on the web but rather a gimmick to get customers to buy products and services through Netscape.

 

The Ugly

My other main complaint about the new Netscape browser is its interface. To put it bluntly, it is ugly. Not boring or over the top or too "techno" looking. Just ugly. I'm not only talking aesthetically ugly, but ugly from a usability standpoint as well. It is crowded with menus, buttons and assorted options at the top and bottom of the screen that have no clear hierarchy. Most of the menus at the bottom are nothing but glorified bookmark links to Netscape's web pages and there is no way (as of this release, anyway) to customise these links to the the user's needs. While the "My Sidebar" feature is a step in the right direction, again it seems primarily there to funnel users to Netscape and its affiliates rather than providing useful and truly customised tools that will make surfing easier.

Then there is the actual appearance. The overly curvaceous chrome is an oppressively dark blue that constantly distracts the eye from the design of any site you may be trying to view in it. The navigation buttons are large and conspicuous, and, although they can be hidden, take up an inordinate amount of screen real estate when they are out in the open. To add insult to injury, the Mac version of the browser does not use standard Mac interface widgets, but imposes Windows-style scroll bars and pop-up menus.

According to Mozilla.org, the Mozilla browser, and thus the Netscape 6 browser, should allow you to swap the "skins" - all of the little graphics that make up a program's interface - so that hopefully the interface can be easily improved. However, this ability is not at all in evidence in the beta release.

 

The Future

If I sound like I'm being harsh on poor old Netscape, it's because I had the highest hopes for this browser. Without a strong contender to battle Internet Explorer, we will continue to see one company dictate standards to the web community www.webstandards.org/wfw/ieah.html. Netscape 6, even after two years of development, seems like only half a browser.

While there is no arguing that the Gecko rendering engine is a amazing work of art, the browser itself seems to have been all but forgotten or, even worse, turned over to the marketing men to play with. It is my sincerest hope that for the next preview release, Netscape will go back to the lab and think hard about putting the web surfer, not their sales department, at the centre of the browsing experience.

jason@webbedenvironments.com

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