Security Gets a Makeover in Netscape 8.0

AOL unwrapped its latest Netscape 8.0 browser with more security and ease-of-use functionality for novice Web surfers.

“It’s been a while since anyone’s mentioned Netscape’s name and we think we’ve come out with what we think is a really exciting browser product that’s got a unique take on the security question, that really differentiates it from any other browser out there,” said Jeremy Liew, Netscape general manager.

The Netscape team included many of the features already promised and hyped during its public beta tests that drew about one million downloads — such as tabbed browsing, RSS notifications and pop-up blocking.

One of the most noticeable changes to come out of the beta tests held in November was the removal of Netscape’s signature green coloring. “Kill the green” and turn down the colors and clutter was the message they received from a lot of beta testers, Liew said.

“It was very sad for us, we kind of liked our original stuff but you can’t argue with users, the users are always right,” he said. The tradition green skin has been replaced with a choice of a sleek gray skin called Fusion or a generic Windows skin called Winscape.

Nowhere is Netscape’s commitment to ease-of-use more clear than with its security controls, designed to help novice surfers detect bogus Web sites designed to steal personal information or put spyware on your computer.

To do that, the browser downloads from AOL servers three times a day a list of Web sites known to be trusted or not-to-be-trusted, as verified by the non-profit TRUSTe organization, VeriSign or ParetoLogic. When a blacklisted site is encountered, Netscape will direct the user to a Web page saying the site isn’t to be trusted and require them to hit the “continue anyway” button before going to the Web page.

Also, in every browser tab is a shield icon that tells users whether the site they are visiting is a trusted site or not. A trusted site gets a green shield, while blacklisted sites get a red shield; sites that haven’t been verified one way or the other are denoted by a gray shield icon. Clicking on the shield takes users to the Site Control feature, allowing surfers to modify the security rating of the page they’re currently visiting as well as enabling Java, cookies, ActiveX controls and other security features.

AOL has incorporated another security feature into its new browser with a dual rendering engine, one emulating Firefox and the other on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE). IE has been plagued with security problems in recent years, many times through its use of the ActiveX features which have been subject to exploits by malware writers, though most Web sites are designed and developed around viewing in IE.

By default, Liew said, Netscape 8.0 will view trusted sites using the IE rendering engine but when it gets to a site that hasn’t been verified or is blacklisted, Netscape will switch over to the Firefox engine to protect customers.

“It is the core to our safety mechanism,” he said.

Also included in Netscape 8.0 is an automatic form filler feature aimed at foiling keystroke loggers that monitor and record a person’s keystrokes when filling out online forms or logging into a site.

In this version AOL has gone out of its way to make the browser’s advanced features easier. An eraser icon at the top left of the browser allows users to clean out their cache, cookies, and search and download history, right next to the form auto-fill icon. A multi-bar feature allows users’ to group and create customized toolbars.

Integrated into the browser is an integrated search function, which includes Google, Ask and Netscape. AIM, AOL’s instant messaging platform, has been integrated into the Netscape 8.0 suite as well, though the company has no plans to incorporate other IM platforms at this time, Liew said.

He also said the company’s research found that many people would rather type in the name of a company through a search engine and click through the results, rather than type in the URL. As such, he said, the search engine box was given more emphasis and the URL windows shoved off to the right side.

This increased functionality comes at a price, though. Web sites take longer to come up than either IE or Firefox, based on visits to several image-laden sites. Liew said the added security features — verifying good/bad Web sites — will always make surfing a trifle slower than with other browsers. He said slowdownn doesn’t mean as much to users as a browser that keeps them safe.

“As the world moves to broadband that extra half-second doesn’t matter as much,” he said. “What matters more is the longer-term affects of spyware, which slows your entire computer down all the time.”

Liew said AOL and the Netscape team are committed to constant updates to the Netscape platform in the coming years. Incremental feature updates are expected throughout the year and the team is thinking about what features they want to include in Netscape 9.0, due out sometime next year.

He said any Firefox updates will be added to the browser soon after they are published on the Mozilla site. Netscape 8.0 is based on Firefox 1.0.3; Liew said they didn’t include the latest Firefox release, version 1.0.4, because the security vulnerability patch only affected Firefox users.

“The beauty of being built on the same code base is that we get the benefit off of a lot of what they do,” he said, “so I think you’ll see us moving as quickly as Firefox.”

The latest version comes nearly three years after AOL released a major update to to the Netscape browser, with version 7.0 in August 2002.

A lot has changed since then. The Netscape 7.x series of browsers were based on the Mozilla Foundation’s Mozilla Suite.

Netscape 8.0 and future versions will be based on Firefox, the open source browser that split off from the Mozilla Suite as a standalone application. The Mozilla Foundation recently scuttled future development of its Mozilla suite.

Netscape is no longer the browser darling it was in past years, either. The once-dominant browser competed head-to-head with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) for popularity. IE ended up on more than 95 percent of the world’s PCs, thanks in part to the browser’s bundling into the Windows operating system platform.

Now it’s not just IE on the PC. A rash of security vulnerabilities has a growing number of users moving to alternative browsers like Firefox and Opera. According to recent numbers by Web analytics company WebSideStory, IE use in the U.S. has dropped to 89 percent with Firefox gaining to nearly 7 percent. Netscape and Mozilla broswers make up a little more than 2 percent of Web surfers, according to the report.

Netscape 8.0 can be downloaded here.

News Around the Web