AOL releases delayed Netscape beta

America Online Inc. (AOL) on Thursday released the first public test version of Netscape 8, a new Web browser with features designed to protect users against online scams and malicious code.

The beta release was originally scheduled for mid-February, but was delayed to fix some last-minute bugs. A preview version of the browser has been available to a select group of testers since late November. The Netscape 8 beta version differs significantly from that preview.

With the release of Netscape 8 beta, AOL is taking aim at Microsoft Corp.’s dominant Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser, which has been the subject of many security vulnerabilities. Also, AOL is looking to piggyback on the popularity of Firefox, the open source Web browser that was released in November and has since been downloaded about 27 million times.

The Netscape 8 browser includes features that are meant to protect users while surfing the Web. For example, the browser adjusts settings based on a list of known malicious Web sites to protect users from phishing scams. Also, trusted Web sites are displayed with fewer restrictions and use the IE rendering engine for maximum compatibility.

IE is part of Windows and is used by most Web users. Many Web sites have been designed specifically to work with the Microsoft browser and may not be displayed correctly in browsers using other engines, including the Gecko engine in Firefox. For example, movie site does not work well in Firefox.

Netscape 8 is based on Firefox and uses that browser’s rendering engine by default, but also supports the IE browser engine. The Netscape browser doesn’t include the IE engine but uses the engine in Windows. As a result, the Netscape 8 browser only works on Windows computers.

In an about-face, Microsoft two weeks ago said it would release a beta of a new IE browser during the middle of this year. Previously, the company had said it would not release a new browser until it ships the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, in 2006. There has not been a new version of IE in four years. The new IE 7.0 will also address security issues such as phishing, Microsoft said.

Phishing scams are a prevalent type of online attack that typically combines spam e-mail messages and fraudulent Web pages that look like legitimate e-commerce sites. The attacks are designed to steal sensitive information such as user names, passwords and credit card numbers.

Netscape was the most popular browser in the early years of the Web. AOL is now breathing new life into the Netscape browser, which was marginalized after Microsoft introduced IE in the mid-1990s. The final version of Netscape 8 is expected out in the second quarter and will be backed by some marketing efforts from AOL, sources familiar with the company’s plan have said.

The new Netscape beta can be downloaded at:

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