Quick on the heels of a landmark Microsoft antitrust decision that centered largely on that company's competitive moves against Netscape Communications and its Navigator Internet browser, America Online chairman Steve Case chose to personally lead the countercharge of the restored Navigator faithful. Case unveiled version 6.0 of the browser, now a distant second to Microsoft's Internet Explorer in most market surveys, during a keynote at Internet World in Los Angeles.
The long-delayed browser release may mark the most important step yet in AOL's attempts to exploit its 1998 purchase of Netscape Communications. The release is an attempted leapfrog of sorts. Netscape, which ran neck-and-neck in releases with Microsoft through release 4, is going straight to version 6 after what were viewed as failed attempts to roll out a follow-up to the once dominant Internet browser.
In his keynote, Case ruminated on how far the Internet has come in a brief time. Just five years ago people wondered if the Internet would be a commercial entity in any way, he remarked, adding, "It's been an amazing change, even for people in the industry." Case made no direct reference to Microsoft's browser, or its trials. He did pointedly note that the Netscape software operates across a range of platforms.
"Netscape 6 will give consumers greater convenience as well as greater speed and efficiency when they go online," said Case. "The Netscape magic is back. "
Case said today that we are on the brink of a second Internet revolution that will make the first one "look quaint by comparison."
The second revolution will be characterized by the convergence of media, entertainment and information, as well as a melding of household appliances like televisions, personal computers and telephones, which will be linked together and share content and functionality, he said.
"This is the beginning of a world we all dreamed about creating 10 years ago," Case said.
Important technologies supported in the new Netscape release include Cascading Style Sheets, XML, and the Java 2 Platform, Standard Edition. Performance is enhanced via Gecko rendering technology, which is said to speed up the browsing experience for users. An XML tool, known as XUL (XML-based User Interface Language) allows customization (some call it componentization). XUL has already been exploited by AOL/Time Warner's company CNN.com, which will provide a custom version of the Netscape browser to its customers.
An AOL spokesperson noted that the work of open source group Mozilla.org is key in producing a browser that supports open standards.
"This release will put Netscape back on the Internet's cutting edge," said Jim Martin, senior vice president and general manager of Netscape Communications.
Barry Schuler, president, Interactive Services Group at AOL said, "Gecko is fast and highly standards compliant and it runs on multiple platforms. Today it runs on PCs, Mac and different flavors of Unix. It becomes the component or module with which people can create different software or hardware products. He noted that even Microsoft would be welcome to incorporate Gecko into Internet Explorer.
It is a bit early to gauge Netscape Navigator's chances of regaining industry attention. Clearly, as a major market force, AOL has the potential to spread the technology widely.
"It is not polished, but it is dramatically better in a lot of ways that will actually matter," said Dan Kegel, a developer at Disappearing Ink, a company based in San Francisco that provides secure email software. Kegel noted that improvements ranged from the small, like autoscrolling when filling out forms, to bigger things, like faster redraws after a page has been resized.
"Netscape used to be a dog and this is just fast," said Kegel.
Kegel also found that the Cascading Style Sheet support is a lot more complete. "People will no longer be cursing Netscape," he said. Kegel was impressed with the ability of the browser to be componentized. He noted that this will make it easier to embed it in other applications. Although he encountered a few problems related to color and a few minor bugs, Kegel noted, "It is definitely a preview for people that want to see what is coming. Diehards can switch now if they want to put up with little problems. Web authors will definitely want to start using it."
Also as part of the AOL-Netscape announcement came word of an Internet appliance jointly designed with Gateway.
AOL chief Case showed prototypes of the new Internet appliances developed by AOL and Gateway that he said will also help make the converged vision a reality by providing consumers with tools for faster, easier access to the Internet.
The products, which will use the Linux operating system and a lightweight version of Netscape's Gecko browser, include a lightweight "countertop" appliance for the kitchen, a desktop appliance designed to serve as a low-cost alternative to the PC and a wireless Web pad.
One attendee sounded impressed by the Internet appliances on show here.
"I'm in the Internet business, but my wife is a general consumer and this is exactly the kind of thing that will win her over," said Mark Foster, vice president of marketing with edupoint.com, a Solana Beach, California, provider of online educational courses.
"Key to all this is simplicity for the consumer," Foster added. "It's got to be as seamless for them as (Case) portrayed it to be here today."
Another show-goer was more skeptical.
"I have yet to believe that consumers are asking for this stuff," said Bijan Dorostkar, who does business development for chip design company RTG Inc.
Case sounded a note of caution, saying the industry must be careful to include all citizens in the Internet, and not just the affluent. About three-quarters of homes in the U.S. with incomes of $75,000 and above are connected to the Web, Case said, compared with only 10 percent of the poorest households.
"I don't think there is a more urgent task than dealing with difficult societal issues, including the digital divide," Case said. "It's no use just talking about it, we have to do it," he added.
Includes reporting by James Niccolai, IDG News Service, and George Lawton for ITworld.com