I was checking the news on Google this morning, and came across an article reporting the release of a new Netscape browser. The existence of a new browser was nothing new to me; it had been well reported previously. However, now that it has been released, I decided I should download it and see what it's like.
What it uses
As soon as you install Netscape 8.0, you can see the Firefox influence. That's because it's more than an influence; Netscape 8.0 is Firefox. However, Netscape aren't at all lazy - they've made plenty of changes (which includes increasing the download size from 4 MB to 12 MB!). As well as Firefox (and therefore the Gecko rendering engine), Netscape 8.0 also uses the Internet Explorer rendering engine.
Gecko and IE?
Yes, both. I have mixed views on this. It's obvious to see where Netscape were coming from: most of the Internet's web sites are (unfortunately) designed specifically for Internet Explorer. This is a problem many people have faced when using alternative web browsers, such as those based on Gecko (Mozilla browsers), KHTML (Konqueror, Safari, etc.) and Opera. The problem is Microsoft, being the independent thinkers that they are, are not satisfied by web standards as set out by the W3C. They like to make the web a "better experience" by adding little quirks which only IE understands. Also, IE just generally interprets certain HTML and CSS differently to other browsers (usually against the W3C recommendations).
Netscape have attempted to overcome the problem of Gecko not rendering 100% of pages correctly by adding native support for Internet Explorer. In practice, this does indeed work very well and is well implemented.
Each web site has a set of rules (easily accessible on the tab for each page by a small yellow shield). These rules include how the page should be rendered; by Netscape (Gecko) or Internet Explorer. When using Internet Explorer mode, the page is sent to the Internet Explorer rendering engine (which any third party application can use) to render the page. To Netscape's credit, they've done a very good job at this integration. The user interface remains identical - in effect, you have Firefox hosting Internet Explorer. However, even the right-click context menu remains almost unchanged between "Netscape" and "Internet Explorer" mode. Only a few options are added and removed due to inabilities on each platform to do that task (i.e. "View background image..." on Netscape is not available for Internet Explorer).
So this is a very helpful and well implemented feature. However, what effect does this have on the Internet? Considering the recent popularity of Firefox, and the brand name Netscape holds, I can foresee this being a very popular browser. It could not only be a threat to Internet Explorer, as Firefox has been, but also Firefox itself. This is what worries me. At the moment, there are still many web sites which are IE specific in design, hence this new feature in Netscape. However, many large sites are moving towards standards based web site designs, which is no doubt having an adverse affect on other smaller sites which want to mimic the more popular sites. Now that this feature is available, there is no need to change your site to work in Firefox, or any browser other than IE. This must not happen. Standards are there for a reason (many in fact). They include accessibility, both by the disabled and those who use different browsers or devices, and standardisation so a site looks the same no matter what is rendering it.
A new user interface?
Netscape have done, mostly, a very good job of producing a new interface. The browser window itself is excellent, and is swaying me to switching from Firefox! Those of you who use Firefox (and if you don't, you had better have a good excuse!) will know that it supports Themes. These basically change what the user interface looks like, and due to the flexibility of XUL (the language used to describe these themes) the user interface can be completely changed. This is basically what Netscape have done with the user interface, and the changes are excellent. There are no native features of the OS - the title bar is skinned to blend in with the toolbar. It's all very soft and bumpy, which I think is a nice design. They've also chosen a pleasing shade of blue (I think this is the Netscape blue) with hints of orange, which also works very well. The interface is generally very comforting, which is likely to be what Netscape were aiming for.
One of my favourite features of the interface itself is the flexible toolbar. Below the standard navigation buttons, there is a row of small numbered buttons. Clicking these loads new dynamic toolbars to the right. These toolbars include search fields, bookmark drop-down lists and live feeds. The live feeds include everything from headlines in several topics to Web mail checking and weather updates, and include any of your own from sites providing RSS news feeds. There are also stock quotes, maps, directory enquiries, and the usual bookmarks toolbar.
Other new features
As well as all of the great features of Firefox, Netscape have also added a few of their own. There is the form filler, which seems to be a re-working of the Firefox Password Manager (although Netscape promise to improve its functionality for the final release, including form filling for typical name, address, email, etc. fields), site trust features (which basically defines global browser security settings for each web site and includes which renderer to use) and additional changes to the tab browsing interface and popup blocker. In general, all these features are very good, although I'm not 100% sure about the changes to the popup blocker; personally I think they open the browser the more pop ups rather than improving its functionality. Also, the sidebar has made a come back from Netscape 7.
Overall, my response is very positive towards Netscape 8.0. Admittedly, I haven't been using it much (I only downloaded it this morning!) however it has proved to be very stable for a beta product. I love the new theme, but there are some minor technical issues I have noticed with the interface.
The main browser window has obviously had a lot of work, and I'm very happy with what Netscape have produced here. However, the status bar could do with some regression - I prefer the facilities available in Firefox (RSS feeds are always displayed here, as are alternative "Page Styles").
My only other niggles lie in what lays under this cover. Dialogue boxes still look like Firefox dialogue boxes, which is good, but a few colour settings have slipped through the net (like the tab colours in the "Page Info..." dialogue) and I can't stand the caption buttons! All caption buttons are a grotesque shade of grey - they really should be coloured the same as the window background with subtle changes to saturation and brightness. Also, some of the interactive features (such as drop down features from Live Feeds) don't always load correctly, but I'm sure this will be fixed for the final release (and technically should be ignored in a review such as this!). Also, it would appear that the search item on the toolbar cannot be customised! It's either Netscape or Netscape where search is concerned - I hope Netscape change this in a future release.
I really like the new Netscape. I remember when I first tried Netscape 6, I was not impressed by how bloated the suite was. There were also many problems, however these were mostly due to the Mozilla suite it was based on. Mozilla fixed all these issues, and Netscape 7 was much improved, but still nothing compared to the new Netscape 8.0. The new Netscape does not include an email client, address book, calendar or page writer, but I don't think that will matter. Email is continuously moving towards web mail, for which Netscape 8.0 has fully integrated support (even supporting GMail :D ). I am concerned, however, by the massive increase in download size. I cannot comprehend how 8 MB has been added to the download over Firefox. The theme can surely only take one or two megabytes, and the Internet Explorer rendering engine is built into Windows! Hopefully, this will also be fixed for the final release; not many people like downloads as big as 12 MB.
If this is a sign of what can be done with Firefox, then I await the rumoured Google browser with great anticipation!
N.B.: As you may have noticed, I'm not a big fan of AOL. The few months we used it, it drove me mad. I cannot comprehend why any body would want to pay to use such a poorly constructed web browser. AOL's service as an ISP, however, is very good. Unfortunately, they insist you use their software to connect.