Yesterday Netscape Communications began fumigating its buggy Netscape 6.0 browser with an improved beta upgrade. The AOL Time Warner subsidiary says its latest beta, Netscape 6.1, offers numerous upgrades but its biggest new feature may be its stability - although some problems persist. The company expects to offer the final Netscape 6.1 release later this summer. "We received a lot of feedback from Web developers and consumers regarding our 6.0 release," says Sol Goldfarb, Netscape director of browser product marketing. "Netscape 6.1 is the sum total response to that feedback." Today, 86 per cent of Web surfers use a version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, according to WebSideStory's StatMarket. Only 13.5 percent now use Netscape's browser, a marked contrast from its former domination of the Web browser market. However, the product may be showing new life. For the first time in two years the company has stopped losing market share, and has actually won back a tiny 1.5 per cent from Microsoft over the last six months. Version 6.1 light on features Netscape doesn't add much to the browser with this beta release, but it does throw in a few extras. First up: A History tab has been added to the My Sidebar tool for keeping track of where you've been online. My Sidebars show up on the left side of Netscape 6.x browser windows. Another addition is an improved email client. This one lets you save messages from a Web-based Netscape and AOL accounts for offline reading. AOL Instant Messenger URL is another new feature. It lets Web developers easily add chat to their Web sites by embedding triggers within their site. When a user clicks on the trigger, it launches the Netscape Instant Messenger client that connects to AOL's popular Instant messaging network. Goldfarb says the AIM URL feature will be a boon to ecommerce sites hoping to win a sale, since customers will be able to reach a live salesperson for assistance. Other new features are a slightly tweaked user interface, including sleeker-looking navigation icons; a utility called Password Manager for storing and encrypting passwords associated with Web-based accounts; and an improved Download Manager that streamlines program downloads and installations. Browser better, but still stumbles Netscape was soundly thrashed by critics, including Digit Online, after it released the 6.0 version of the browser late last year. Many complained that the software seemed unfinished, and was far too buggy for a major release. A cursory review of the beta 6.1 browser shows marked improvement over 6.0. General Web surfing is comparable to Netscape's more stable 4.x browsers. But as with 6.0, Netscape's latest release stumbles and sometimes falls flat when trying to display more advanced Web sites. At times the browser even fails to perform basic functions, such as triggering a Java Security window that gives Java applications permission to function in your Web browser. Some Java-based services that could not be used with the browser include telephony services at Dialpad.com, applications hosted at ThinkFree.com, and games at MSN.com. Netscape claims the loading problem is with the sites. That problem is that each uses SmartUpdate, a Netscape program that automatically downloads software onto your hard drive. With Netscape 6.1 the company abandons support for SmartUpdate, replacing it with the more advanced XP Install. This new program should help to better streamline the download process and works with any browser and operating system, the company says. Web standards are key Other problems cropped up during our tests when we visited Web sites with advanced designs. For example, the "Games" link at Netscape's own NetCenter Web site delivered a Web page "System Error" message. We encountered similar errors at Netscape parent company AOL's Web site. Netscape says it has worked with sites such as Adobe.com, MSNBC.com, and Macromedia.com to push for open standards that support the Netscape 6.1 browser. Eric Krock, group product manager for Netscape, told Digit Online late last year that he blamed bad HTML coding by the Web site's creators for the problems. But if Netscape can't get it right at its own Netscape NetCenter Web site or at its parent company's site, it begs the question: Can it ever? Microsoft not standing still Microsoft has embraced many standards from the World Wide Web Consortium in the latest version of its browser, IE5. But many Web sites still offer tools with Windows-and-IE-only functionality. "Microsoft .Net strategy is going to exacerbate the trend away from Netscape in the workplace," says Nicole Lewis, associate analyst with Jupiter Media Metrix. Microsoft's .Net strategy is going to be impossible to compete with because it so tightly marries the Windows operating system with Web-based applications, she says. "Microsoft's ability to incorporate its own technology in the browser makes our job a lot easier," Long says. However, Netscape has its own strategy. One piece of its plan is to leverage its relationship with AOL Time Warner. That's already begun with Netscape's integrated toolbar, which runs atop nearly all AOL Time Warner-owned Web sites linking you to Netscape Web-based applications and destinations. "Will Netscape's deep-pocket parent be enough to compete with Microsoft?" asks Lewis. "Time will tell," she says.
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