Netscape fires new version into browser wars

Much like the “Star Wars” movies, the browser wars have returned for a whole new era of battle, as illustrated Wednesday by the release of Netscape Communications Corp.’s Netscape 7.0 preview browser.

And Netscape’s new browser appears armed for market share warfare, boasting features that have proven popular with open-source browser users, such as tabbed browsing, as well as the must-have commercial offerings like radio.

The Preview Release of Netscape 7.0 comes on the heels of news that the Mozilla open-source browser is in beta testing and soon due for final release, and while Netscape’s arch rival, Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer (IE), is busy eating up market share.

Netscape, a subsidiary of Internet and media powerhouse AOL Time Warner Inc. (AOLTW), has long been pitted against Microsoft in the browser race. What’s more, Microsoft’s latest version of Internet Explorer, IE6, has gained over 30 percent of the market since it was released in the second half of last year, compared to Netscape’s seven per cent of the market, according to a March 2002 study by Internet researcher WebSideStory Inc.

Netscape may be hoping to turn the tide with its latest offering, which boasts new features such as Click-to-Search, which allows users to highlight a word or phrase with their mouse and click “Web Search” to receive a separate browser window of search results.

But the new feature that perhaps stands out the most is tabbed browsing, which allows users to keep track of a number of sites or pages as tabbed pages in a single browser window that users can click between. Tabbed browsing has proven to be a popular feature with Mozilla beta users, which may be how Netscape came about implementing it in the 7.0 version. The Mozilla open-source browser project was initiated by Netscape, and the company uses the same browser engine as Mozilla, called Gecko. Additionally, the company views and uses a large amount of code coming out of the open source project.

Until last June, AOLTW’s Internet unit, AOL, used IE as its default browser, but the company has recently said that it is testing a Gecko-powered browser for the service. It remains to be seen if positive feedback regarding the new Netscape browser sways AOL to make the switch.

The preview 7.0 browser also boasts new media offerings such as Radio@Netscape, an integrated radio product that features over 175 stations that play a variety of musical genres.

Netscape is touting the new Gecko-driven browser as fast, and optimized for activities such as file downloading, searching, shopping and listening to music. Additionally, new customization features have been included for both Netscape mail and AOL’s integrated instant messenger program (AIM).

The launch of the preview 7.0 is coupled with a redesign of the company’s site, which has added content from AOLTW’s expansive media holdings and a newfangled toolbar.

While Netscape is signalling that it has yet to raise the white flag in the browser war, it will be up to users to determine if preview 7.0 is the right weapon of choice.