New Netscape browser supports Internet Explorer

AOL releases preview version based on open-source Firefox

America Online Inc. today released a preview version of a new Netscape Web browser that's based on the open-source Firefox Web browser, but also supports Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer browser engine.

Internet Explorer, which is part of Windows, is used by the great majority of Web users. Many Web sites have been designed specifically to work with the Microsoft browser and may not work correctly in browsers using other engines, including the Gecko engine in Firefox.

While current Firefox users can switch to Internet Explorer when they have a problem with a Web site, AOL's Netscape unit found a different solution. If a Web site doesn't display well in the standard Firefox-based configuration in Netscape, it takes two clicks to display the page using the Internet Explorer engine. The browser stores engine preferences for each Web site.

The Netscape browser doesn't include the Internet Explorer engine but uses the engine that is part of Windows. As such, the browser works only on Windows computers.

The new Netscape browser offers several other features, including some that give users greater control over browser security. For example, users can determine on each Web site they visit whether pop-ups and cookies should be allowed and whether the browser should run ActiveX controls (in IE mode), JavaScript and Java.

AOL also enhanced support for Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds, which is also available in Firefox. The Netscape browser can display rotating headlines from RSS feeds in a special task bar. RSS feeds are an increasingly popular way to syndicate headlines and sometimes entire articles from Web sites.

The Netscape preview is available only to a select group of testers. A public beta and final release of the new browser is planned for next year, a person familiar with AOL's plans said. The browser and a new e-mail client will eventually replace the current Netscape offering, an AOL spokesman said earlier this month.

View Netscape screenshot
Netscape was the most popular browser in the early years of the Web. However, its market share crumbled when Microsoft introduced Internet Explorer in the mid-1990s. The acquisition of Netscape by Microsoft rival AOL and a lengthy antitrust trial couldn't change the browser's fortune.

Analysts said that the death knell was sounding for the Netscape browser after AOL last year laid off essentially all of its Netscape software developers and ended development work on the Mozilla browser technology.

Development work was taken over by the Mozilla open-source project, which was originally started in early 1998 by Netscape and continued when AOL acquired Netscape later that year. Last year, the people behind Mozilla created a foundation, largely funded by a $2 million pledge from AOL, to build, support and promote Mozilla products, which include the Firefox browser.

AOL breathed new air into Netscape with the release of Netscape 7.2 in August. That product is based on Mozilla 1.7, a suite of products that includes a browser, e-mail client, Internet Relay Chat client and Web page editor. AOL confirmed plans for the new Firefox-based browser and today's preview release earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Internet Explorer continues to dominate the browser market, although it has been losing market share since earlier this year with the arrival of Firefox, according to the San Diego Web metrics company WebSideStory Inc. Firefox 1.0 was released on Nov. 9 (see story).

As of Friday, Internet Explorer held 91.57% of the U.S. browser market, down from 92.86% a month earlier, according to WebSideStory. Firefox stood at 4.2% on Friday, up from 3% a month earlier, the company said.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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