Written off for dead about a year ago, the forefather of Web browsers, Netscape Navigator, is being resuscitated in the coming months with an updated version. But whether it will mark a revival of the browser, or simply some life support, remains to be seen.
America Online Inc., which owns Netscape Communications Corp., is preparing a summer release of Netscape Navigator 7.2, an AOL spokeswoman confirmed with eWEEK.com.
It will be the first update to the browser since AOL spun off its Mozilla open-source development group last July, weeks after releasing its last Netscape Navigator, Version 7.1.
As has been the case since Netscape Navigator 6.0, the browser will be based on the latest version of the Mozilla browser suite, AOL spokeswoman Anne Bentley said.
The now standalone Mozilla Foundation plans to release Version 1.7 of its namesake browser suite later this month, which sources say could allow AOL to issue an updated Netscape Navigator as early as June.
It is unclear whether AOL is planning to unveil significant new browser features as part of the release. Bentley declined to discuss any new features or explain AOLs overall strategy for Netscape, which it bought in 1998.
But a new Netscape release does buck the speculation of industry observers who largely expected AOL to end Netscape browser releases. Along with spinning off Mozilla last year, Netscape also had laid off most of its developers and programmers, former Netscape employees said.
AOLs browser strategy has taken contradictory turns in recent years. AOL last year agreed to license the IE browser as part of an antirust settlement between its Netscape unit and Microsoft.
AOLs main client already had included IE, but the settlement and development changes also appeared to scrap a one-time plan to build the AOL client on the Gecko browser engine that serves as the core for Mozilla and Netscape.
about the AOL-Microsoft settlement.
In January, AOL attached the Netscape brand to its new, low-cost consumer ISP service that offers $9.95 monthly access to the Internet.
Engineer on Features
Daniel Glazman, a former Netscape engineer who is now the CEO of French software developer Disruptive Innovations SARL, said he doubts AOL will add major features to Netscape Navigator or make significant changes to its core browser technology.
“AOL does not have … the work force to make significant changes,” Glazman said in an e-mail interview. “In my opinion, Netscape 7.2 new features will be Mozilla 1.7 new features.”
Officials at the Mozilla Foundation declined to comment on the Netscape plans.
Glazman said he views AOLs Netscape release as more of a competitive move than as an aggressive re-entry into the browser wars. In particular, AOL has struggled with its Web strategy as subscribers to its Internet service have declined.
“AOL needs a portal, and the only efficient one it has is Netscape.com,” Glazman wrote. “But people who no longer have the Netscape browser on their browser are not going to visit Netscape.com just because it exists. AOL needs a browser having Netscape.com as its default home page.”
Analysts say there is an opportunity for competing browsers to make headway against Microsoft Corp.s market-dominating Internet Explorer browser. Microsoft holds a 93.9 percent market share in the desktop browser space with its various versions of IE, according to May data from Web analytics vendor OneStat.com.
Microsoft has been slow to upgrade features in IE and last year said it would stop standalone development of IE, instead melding the browser development into overall Windows development.
Since winning the browser wars of the 1990s—when IE and Netscape Navigator went head to head in furiously releasing new features—Microsoft has stopped adding innovative browser features, said Joe Wilcox, an analyst at Jupiter Research, a division of Jupitermedia Corp.
Take pop-up blocking, for example. Only now, with the planned release of a Windows XP update later this year, is Microsoft adding a feature that has been standard for years in other browsers such as Mozilla and Opera, Wilcox said.
Among business users, Jupiter Research found that 87 percent use various versions of IE, but 25 percent also still use Netscape and another 11 percent use Opera, Wilcox said, noting that many users use more than one browser.
“If 25 percent of business users are still using Netscape, thats still a viable market, so why not offer a refresh and new technology?” Wilcox said of AOLs Netscape plans.
Even if AOL simply keeps Netscape Navigator updated with its Mozilla base, new releases of it help to raise the profile of alternatives to IE, said Jon von Tetzchner, CEO of Norwegian browser maker Opera Software ASA.
Besides Netscape, Opera is one of the only commercial browser competitors to IE and has continued to rev regular new releases.
Because AOL has yet to explain its overall Netscape Navigator strategy, von Tetzchner said, it is hard to know what impact an updated Netscape Navigator will have on the market.
“Are they going to put 10 people on the continuing Netscape effort or 1,000 people?” von Tetzchner asked. “At this time, we dont know, but I think its good for the community to have choice. Its bad news if people are just using Internet Explorer.”