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AOL's Browser Beta Signals New Positioning

America Online is testing a beta version of its latest browser technology that could portend a looming skirmish in its ongoing browser wars with Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

The browser software is a layout engine dubbed "Gecko". It builds on the guts of Netscape's core browser but includes support for open Internet standards such as HTML 4.0, CSS, XML, W3C Document Object Model and JavaScript, to name a few.

A previous incarnation was code-named "Raptor" and part of the Netscape Communications division's "NGLayout" project. This version has morphed to the code name "Talon."

After test-driving it with CompuServe, the software is now getting a look-see in the current AOL 7.0. AOL and Netscape are divisions of AOL Time Warner .

"It's been well reviewed. It's fast, standards-based," said Jim Whitney, an AOL spokesman.

"We continue to invest in Gecko and have put significant amount of research into the technology. This is a vote of confidence," he said of the latest Netscape version. "It's small and modular."

Gecko is basically a layout engine that takes content (such as HTML, XML, image files, applets, and so on) and formatting information (such as Cascading Style Sheets, hard-code HTML tags, etc.) and displays the formatted content on the screen, the company said.

In addition to "painting" the browser's content area, Gecko's layout engine can parse various documents types such as HTML, XML and CSS and is equipped for advanced rendering capabilities with imaging.

"Gecko is so fast and so powerful that it's being used to create the browser's user interface ('chrome') as well. In other words, Gecko will not only be displaying the document's content, but it will also be painting the scroll bars, tool bars, and menus on the screen as well," the Gecko developer page said.

AOL's Whitney wouldn't comment on whether Gecko could be the catalyst for a spiffed-up Netscape as the default browser in upcoming versions of the AOL client.

Given the storied battles between the Netscape browser and Microsoft's Internet Explorer, and the latest features that the Gecko engine brings to the browser, some observers already see skirmish potential.

But Michael Gartenberg, research director for Internet research firm Jupiter Media Metrix, is somewhat skeptical that Gecko could be enough to turn around Netscape's market share.

Jupiter's research shows that Netscape Navigator's share of the browser market went from 25 percent in May of 2001 to 24.4 percent by October of 2001. In the same time frame, Microsoft's IE's share went from 87.1 percent to 89.4 percent growth, he said.

"For all intents and purposes, the key browser wars are over and have been for quite some time," Gartenberg said.

"At this stage of the game, it doesn't come as surprise that AOL is trying to get some practical use out of its Netscape purchase."

AOL is still using IE technology in its browser too, he continued, but AOL may no longer feel it necessary to have a spot on the Windows desktop, given their arm wrestling over bundling issues on the Windows XP operating system.

But with AOL's subscriber list now past the 34 million mark and cable division AOL Time Warner aggressively rolling out its high-speed broadband service, the clouds of battle over which browser is featured on AOL 8.0 are already gathering.