By Stephen H. Wildstrom Netscape Communications' latest version of its Navigator browser and e-mail program narrows the vast gap in performance and features opened by Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Outlook Express for Windows and the Macintosh. The question now is: Will anyone care?
While it's always nice to see some competition for Microsoft, it's hard to get very excited about a new browser that is, at best, just about as good as Internet Explorer, which comes preinstalled not only on every Windows PC, but every Mac as well. The biggest winners with the new release are the relative handful of people who run the Linux operating system -- they don't have a Microsoft option.
Netscape Version 6.1 is a dramatic improvement over last year's 6.0. That was the first major new upgrade since Netscape published its browser's source code and turned the development effort over to a largely volunteer organization called Mozilla.org.
WEB COMPLIANT. Netscape 6.0 put the lie to the claim by fans of so-called open-source development that the method inherently produces better programs. Netscape 6.0 was cranky and buggy. Worse, its mail program lost key features that had been part of the Netscape suite since version 4.5, rendering it all but unusable on corporate mail systems.
The new 6.1 seems far less crash-prone than its predecessor. And it brings Netscape into compliance with the latest Web standards, so it can be used to view pages that gave earlier versions trouble.
In addition to a generally new look, the biggest obvious change is the customizable "sidebar," which first appeared in version 6.0. It's a vertical area on the left side of the screen that can hold an assortment of data, including an AOL Instant Messenger buddy list (Netscape is a subsidiary of AOL Time Warner), stock quotes, news headlines, a search window, and just about whatever else you might want. It's not a particularly novel idea -- IE's Explorer Bar serves much the same function -- but can be handy.
SCRAPPY UNDERDOG? The new mail program catches up with Outlook Express in a number of categories, the most important being the opportunity to read mail from multiple accounts. The program actually offers one considerable advantage over OE: It allows you to use message-filtering rules with mail servers that run the IMAP protocol, which is widely used in corporate mail systems. But the message-filtering capabilities remain primitive when compared with programs such as Microsoft Outlook 2000/2002 for Windows or Entourage for the Mac.
Version 6.1 restores two important mail features that were lost in 6.0. The program can be configured to look up addresses in corporate directories. And it allows you to download entire message directories, including the Inbox, for work offline and to synchronize the folders when you get back online.
Netscape has won a reputation as the scrappy underdog that was all but crushed by the monopolistic behemoth, Microsoft. Such a view ignores the reality that Netscape itself is part of a corporate behemoth that, if it isn't yet a monopoly in some markets, certainly wouldn't mind becoming one. Microsoft has drawn a lot of criticism for the way its forthcoming Windows XP operating system tries to get users to sign up for Microsoft Web services and MSN Instant Messaging. But Netscape 6.1 is far more aggressive about trying to make you sign up for Netscape Web mail -- its answer to Microsoft's Hotmail -- and for AOL Instant Messenger.
GIVE IT A TRY. I took Microsoft to task (see BW Online, 8/14/01, "Bystanders Get Caught in the XP Crossfire"] for leaving support for Java out of Windows XP and the soon-to-be-released Internet Explorer 6.0. It turns out Netscape 6.1 also lacks built-in Java support. In a manner similar to IE, the first time you click on a Java applet, Netscape 6.1 offers to go out and download the needed plug-in from Sun Microsystems. However, Netscape loads and runs Java applets much more slowly than IE.
Netscape 6.1 can coexist on a computer with Internet Explorer and with earlier versions of Netscape, so there's not much risk in giving it a try. (I've seen some scattered reports of troublesome interactions with other programs, but nothing that suggests a serious or systemic problem.)
You may find downloading it a problem, however. I encountered numerous failures in attempts to get it from Netscape's Web site, and even a successful download often had to be restarted when the connection broke off partway through. Fortunately, the download software is able to pick up where it left off. As an alternative, you can order the program from www.netscape.com on CD for $16.95 with a manual or $6.95 without. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online