RealTime IT News

AOL Browser Dusting Netscape?

There are 10 candles on Netscape Navigator's birthday cake today, but owner AOL is also celebrating the pending birth of a new browser.

Company officials say AOL is headed in its own browser direction with the fall launch of AOL Browser, a stand-alone browser based on Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) technology.

An AOL source familiar with the testing said the browser will include an "extra layer of features" on top of IE 6.0, including: pop-up controls, tabbed windows, built-in access to AOL Search and AOL Desktop Search.

The latest development would mark AOL's brave next leap on the Web and continue the legacy of Netscape, which helped introduce the world to the Web 10 years ago. At the time, Netscape Communications officials announced the public beta launch of Navigator, the browser created by Silicon Graphics founder Jim Clark and Mosaic creator Marc Andreessen.

Optimized to run at a now-quaint 14.4 kilobits per second , Navigator was a free download for individual use and ran a $99 per-user license for commercial use. Its creators were optimistic about the technology's potential.

"We expect Netscape's ease of use to spark another major leap in Internet usage by making the Net a powerful tool for a broader base of users," Andreessen said in a statement at the time. "By incorporating security and advanced functionality, Netscape now lays the foundation for commerce on the Net."

And so it did -- until Microsoft entered the game, or, as it turned out, waged battle, pitting IE against Navigator, with IE gaining yearly market share gains over its competitor. Microsoft's strategy of bundling IE with its operating system and freezing Netscape out eventually led to a landmark U.S. antitrust lawsuit over whether Microsoft abused its monopoly status with Windows. Ultimately, it also settled a private antitrust lawsuit brought by AOL Time Warner on behalf of its Netscape unit, which it acquired in 1999.

The settlement agreement sparked a $750 million payout from Microsoft to AOL in exchange for new opportunities to jointly develop and support steps for digital media technology and digital rights management (DRM) initiatives.

The intense competition between Netscape and IE prior to the settlement brought about fundamental changes in the way members in the Internet community communicated with each other.

"I think back sometimes to what we were all doing in those days, and the presence of the Web in business was hardly there," said Stef Bensi, U.S. managing director for Hong Kong-based hosted e-mail and consulting outfit Outblaze.

"I think Netscape was the catalyst that changed how the Internet was used. Prior to browsers being prevalent and the main tool to access the Web, e-mail was always a local event, and accessing it over the Web was something that wasn't very common. The advent of the browser changed all that."

In 1999, after AOL acquired Netscape Communications, it continued development on the browser after downsizing the new division. It would eventually let go of the project and 50 of its Netscape developers after settling its antitrust lawsuit with Microsoft.

Meanwhile, development continues apace on the Netscape browser, with the August launch of version 7.2, which is based on the Mozilla 1.7.2 browser technology.

At the time officials said the future development of the Netscape brand, which still maintains a devoted following among Web surfers and includes the Netscape browser and Web site, would continue into the indefinite future, even though AOL only retains a handful of dedicated Netscape programmers.

Andrew Weinstein, an AOL spokesperson, would not comment on the AOL Browser or its release date. He did say, however, the ISP is coming out with a Netscape update soon that is much more than just an iterative update, "not a point update, [but a] significant, exciting upgrade," he said.

The launch of a stand-alone browser using the engine of its one-time nemesis, IE, though, raises the question of Netscape's future.

The $750 million settlement with Microsoft gave AOL seven years of free use of the IE technology, as well as a long-term license agreement to use Redmond's entire Windows Media 9 platform for its own development projects.

According to an AOL source familiar with the browser group's plans, the decision to base AOL Browser on IE was a simple matter of providing what the company's customers want in their browser.

"With the majority of online consumers today using the IE browser, we decided to base our enhanced browser on a product with which most consumers were familiar."

Support is a question many of today's "alternative" browsers must answer, not just Netscape.

While Microsoft's IE has been losing some market share to competitors like Mozilla's Firefox and the Opera browser over a recent spate of security vulnerabilities, the majority of Web sites are still developed with IE in mind. When developers don't support Firefox, Netscape or Opera functionality in their Web pages, casual Web surfers are less inclined to stray from what works most consistently.