It is a sudden pariah of the computer industry, a company that had brazenly announced that it would conquer Microsoft, only to be summarily crushed in an unprecedented software blitzkrieg from the Redmond giant. Once in command of a vast Internet market that could only grow to amazing heights, Netscape Communications and its wildly popular but poorly engineering Navigator Web browser were on top of the world only two years ago. But today, as the smallest fiefdom in the America Online (AOL) empire, Netscape finds itself in a curious game of catch-up with Microsoft, whose technologically superior Internet Explorer now owns a clear majority in the Web browser market. How bad are things for Netscape? Consider that the company's purchase by AOL had nothing to do with Navigator at all: AOL was simply interested in its Netcenter Web portal, a Web site with millions of members, or "eyeballs" as marketing folk like to call them. And Netscape's next-generation Web browser, originally titled Communicator 5.0, has been bumped up a notch to version 6.0 because it's been in the making for almost two years without a single public beta release. But that's about to change. And if the intrepid developers at Netscape are right, the company may be poised to set the online world on its ear once again.
The key to its comeback resides in a little piece of technology called "Gecko," which is an HTML rendering engine that sits at the heart of Communicator 6.0 and "Mozilla," the open source version of Netscape that's been languishing in pre-beta hell since the beginning of 1999. Hoping to capitalize on the success of Linux, Apache and other open source software, Netscape released the source code to its Web browser products and waited for the enhancements and bug fixes to roll in. It never happened, at least not at the speed which Netscape had hoped: The company that had defined the rapid release cycle now known as "Internet time" found itself suddenly behind the monolithic Microsoft, with a dead period that has now lasted almost two years between major releases. It was a stunning setback for the company, which had originally hoped to ship the new version of its software last year.
But Gecko may make the wait worthwhile. Now licensed by companies such as IBM, Intel, NetObjects, Red Hat Linux, and Sun Microsystems, Gecko provides all of the componentization of Internet Explorer with an unmatched cross-platform compatibility. But Gecko is also more powerful that IE's rendering engine in many ways, offering full support for all major Web standards, including the Extensible User Interface Language (XUL, pronounced "zool") specification, which allows users to easily create new user interfaces for the browser itself; If you're a Winamp user, think of Gecko as "skinz" on steroids and you'll get the idea. (Indeed, the AOL-owned Winamp will soon use Gecko itself.) XUL will form the basis of cross-platform HTML-based user interfaces in the future, and it's unclear whether a similar Microsoft offering--which is attempting to meld the traditional Windows graphics interface to HTML--will be compatible with this standard as well.
If you're interested in Netscape 6.0, the company has good news: Expect to see the first public beta within the next three weeks. Netscape 6.0 will feature a much smaller disk footprint and faster speed than its predecessor (Communicator 4.7x) due to the compact Gecko engine. In addition to the standard browser, email and newsgroup reader components, Netscape 6.0 will include instant messaging software for live communications. But most importantly, the product will completely support the latest Web standards, in sharp contrast to previous versions, which seemed to reinvent the wheel wherever possible, leading to incompatibilities and headaches for Web developers. Netscape, it seems, has finally gotten the vision along with its humility.