Netscape Navigator's Bold New Course


By Charles Haddad Netscape Navigator, long since given up for dead on the Mac platform, has risen from the ashes like Mothra in the Japanese monster flicks of my youth. And it's trying once again to topple the Godzilla of Web browsers, Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Today, 80% of all Web surfing, whether on a Mac or PC, is done with Explorer.

I'm hoping for a renewed struggle between the two. Nothing quick or decisive, mind you. A long and ardent battle with no clear winner would be just fine. Such a contest will keep both Navigator and Explorer on their toes, with one eye always focused on users. After all, it's we surfers who will ultimately benefit from this contest.

That Navigator is standing at all is a small miracle. It was listing badly when AOL Time Warner bought Netscape several years ago. And, sadly, Navigator went downhill from there. It fell far behind Explorer in terms of ease-of-use and adoption of new features. As Explorer added useful innovations, such as the ability to handle multiple e-mail accounts, Navigator looked on like a boxer stunned by a blow to the solar plexus.

REBORN. When Netscape finally did respond, it was a disaster, at least on the Mac platform. The initial release of 6.0 was slow, buggy, and unstable. Mac users flamed it from AOL Time Warner's suburban Virginia headquarters to Timbuktu. For many, Navigator wouldn't run for longer than 10 minutes without crashing. Such failings became all the more glaring as Explorer continued to grow and improve.

Small wonder that Mac users began to bail on Navigator. What began as a trickle of defections turned into a flood. Apple adopted Explorer as its default browser. By August of this year, Webzine MacEdition reported that less than 2% of those visiting its site were using Navigator.

I'm hoping, though, that August was the bottom of the trough for Navigator. My hope is based on the latest update to Navigator, called version 6.01, released late last summer. It's already earning high marks from many critics. At long last, the AOL Time Warner's Navigator team has copied many of the new features added to Explorer in the past two years. I've found the latest release of Navigator faster, less buggy, and more stable. Many others say they're experiencing the same results. Netscape's engineers claim Navigator 6 is now the most stable version ever.

THE GOOD WORD. Granted, that may not be saying much, given both Explorer's and Navigator's low standards of stability. Still, word of Navigator's newfound reliability is spreading fast across the Net. A growing number of users, at first gun-shy, have given Navigator a second chance in recent weeks. So far in September, MacEdition has watched the number of visitors using Navigator shoot up to 5%.

That turnaround represents a unique event in the Mac market. Most consumers rarely look back at a product that's stumbled. Navigator, however, is a big icon in what is almost a religious struggle between the Mac and PC platforms. Many in the Mac community still blame Bill Gates for somehow cheating Apple out of its rightful place as standard-bearer in the PC world. They begrudgingly used Explorer only because Navigator had become so unreliable. Now they're happy to switch allegiances.

Is it too late? Navigator is still very much playing catch-up. It lost a big opportunity when it let small fry like OmniGroup, iCab, and Opera beat it to market with new browsers that would run in Apple's new OS X operating system. Users dissatisfied with Explorer switched to those browsers rather than use Navigator. Even though these newcomers are a bit rough around the edges, users are raving about them on the Net.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT. In truth, while much improved, Navigator is still far from perfect. I find it bloated, for one. It won't run on anything less than a PowerPC 604e running at 266 MHz. And you need a minimum of 64 MB of RAM. That's not too drastic by today's standards, but lean and mean -- as are some of the new browsers -- Navigator is not. Of course, neither is Explorer.

However, Explorer has one big advantage over Navigator. It truly is a Mac program, incorporating all the latest technologies from Apple. Not so with Navigator, which looks and feels to me like a PC program masquerading in Mac clothing. Its interface is modal and clumsy.

That said, I'm wishing Navigator the best. It's important that someone give Explorer a run for its money. Otherwise Microsoft will begin to take the Mac browser market for granted. It's only human nature. And I'm assuming Gates isn't Godzilla, but human, after all. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online


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