Netscape 6 Moves in a Whole New Direction

The real news with the release of the first preview edition of the Netscape 6 Web browser isn't its new rendering engine (code-named Gecko) or its support of several recommendations from the W3C Web standards consortium. The real news is that this version of Netscape shifts the browser's purpose away from looking at Web pages to using Netscape-based services on the Internet.

For the last four years, Netscape and Microsoft have been battling to see which company was going to dominate the browser market. One of the strategies was to woo developers by introducing whizzy new technologies: when Internet Explorer and Netscape both came out with 4.0 browser versions, each featured a proprietary way of building "push" channels; what worked in Netscape wouldn't work in Microsoft and vice versa. The strategy backfired: instead of succumbing to the lure of a specific technology and building sites that implicitly endorsed one browser over the other, developers simply worked with a limited toolbox and began banding together to demand that the browser drop the proprietary nonsense and begin building to agreed-upon standards.

The developers have been heard: both new browser versions strive for visual consistency with font sizes and style sheet implementations. However, that's small ground to give: Netscape's moved on to conquer a larger audience: web surfers, not developers. When a new browser window opens, users see more than Web pages loading. They also have the option to view a "sidebar" panel that includes a search tool, your AOL Instant Messenger "buddy list," customizable stock listings, a list of related sites, a CNN.com feed, a Reuters headline feed, and links to third-party sites which have developed Netscape "sidebar" content.

And that's just the sidebar in the browser. Users can also click a portion of the bottom of their active browser window to cue Netscape's WYSIWYG editor, Composer. They can access their personalized Netscape calendar, multiple AOL and email accounts, instant messaging, and a host of recommended links. Netscape is clearly driving its users toward the model of the browser as central hub for a whole host of web-based activities: communication, learning, entertaining oneself, and shopping.

One of the new features Netscape is promoting is the browser's greatly changed interface: "It's 'cool AND efficient!'"

It's blue, very blue. The new palette doesn't channel Aqua in any way, shape, or form, but it's awash in different cool hues. The standard text/icons toolbar we're all used to from Netscape 4 has been replaced with one compact, multi-level bar at the top of the screen. The forward, back, and home buttons have all been replaced with big, round icons; users can mouse above the buttons to check their bookmarks, go home, or visit the portal my.netscape.com. Although users do have the option to make both the top nav bars disappear and thus increase their screen real estate a little, in doing so they lose one-click functionality; it would be nice if users could select an all-text toolbar as a compact alternative to the big, icon-driven one. It would have been even nicer if Netscape had taken a page from Microsoft in this case and let users create their own top nav bar, using either icons or a text-only option.

Unfortunately, users have no control over the bottom of their browser window: every one comes packed with those extra features -- Composer, Instant Messenger, shopping, a personalized calendar and tons of Netscape links. While it's understandable that Netscape wants to include ample opportunities for its users to tap into its services -- after all, AOL's interface runs on the same model -- it seriously cuts into browser real estate. Users who want to surf are doing so in a space that's sharply constrained by the inclusion of other features.

Even more annoying than the greatly reduced browser real estate is the lack of customizability within the browser. If I wanted to customize the look of pages within my browser -- to change color combinations and instruct the browser to use those because of color-blindness, for example -- I can no longer do so. Users currently have the option to set font faces, sizes and resolution, and while this last option goes a long way in reconciling the font-appearance discrepancies between Mac and Windows platforms, the entire array of appearance-controlling options has been very sharply reduced. I hope that this is only an article of the browser's preview-release status.

Although Microsoft Internet Explorer 5 has been getting some modest press for its implementation of the CSS-1 standard, Netscape 6 also says its offers full support for CSS-1 and implementation of JavaScript 1.5. In his column last week, Jason Snell profiled how IE 5 displayed pages that were developed for old browsers. What's interesting to note is how well Netscape 6 handles pages that work well in Internet Explorer 4.5 and 5, and what the critical differences are.

First I checked was the Web site for Apple's forthcoming Worldwide Developers Conference. In Internet Explorer 5, the text was scrunched or overlapped in spots - a common phenomenon on several style-sheeted pages when rendered in IE. Netscape 6 loaded the page with no trouble.

Then I checked one of my favorite web-development sites, Webbed Environments. In Internet Explorer 4.5 and 5, the page looks fine; in Netscape 6, it looked at though it had been through a blender. Part of this could be due to different implementation of JavaScript, or a new interpretation of style sheets, but the moral of the story is similar to the moral for IE5 users: expect some of your favorite sites to start looking very different.

A lot of Netscape 6's bugginess -- not being able to make shortcut keys work, the slow loading time for many sites, the inability to customize a page's appearance, the strange style sheet behavior -- may be the result of using a preview version of a new browser.

But the most interesting thing about this browser is its shift away from basic Web surfing and more toward related activities that take place online. It's a tacit acknowledgement that the Web has changed, and that browser users are much more likely to be consumers looking for recreation than hard-core Net geeks worried about style sheet implementations.

Is that a good thing? That much remains to be seen.

Macworld.com Senior Editor LISA SCHMEISER ( lisa_schmeiser@macworld.com ) has written for Suck, Salon, and TeeVee, among other Web sites. She has also worked for several Web publishers and design firms.

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