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Firefox-based Netscape 8 tastes good

First Look AOL, MSIE, and Firefox put into a blender
Fri May 20 2005, 10:56
THE FOLKS at the Netscape.com portal, owned by America Online, released their long-awaited Netscape 8.0 browser yesterday. I used this opportunity to put my prejudices aside and take it for a spin.

First, the change of attitude is noticeable... the company is promoting this browser. When you surf to Netscape.com with any older-than-v8 Netscape browser you encounter a "detour" web page telling you, in no uncertain terms, that your old Netscape browser you're using is pretty much obsolete and why "you should really, really" get version eight.

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Surprise: there's a marketing push for Netscape Eight

There is a problem, however, version 8 is available on 32-bit Windows and english language only. Since it's based on Firefox, creating a build that runs on Linux (sans the MSIE engine functionality) should certainly be possible, as well as offering translations in other languages. Despite that, those of you in America or even Blighty would have no problems. Once you click "download" what is delivered is a 297KB "active installer" that fetches several dozen bitmaps from the net, shows the Licence agreement, and waits for the user to click OK, only then the whole full installer is downloaded in the background and run. But if you want to go straight to the "full installer" the http://browsers.netscape.com web page doesn't make things easy for you, and the ftp and http sites block the directory view, so you can't see the name of the file. Luckily for you and unfortunately for Netscape.com marketing robots, I used a packet sniffer to find the elusive URL where the whole thing is stored, which is a 13MB file that you can get here. This "full installer" can be burned to a cd or placed in a shared folder and installed over a LAN without the need of an active internet connection.

Of course if you want to save time, the company is willing to sell you an official cd, a printed guidebook, and, for the first time since around the Netscape 6.0 launch, assorted Netscape memorabilia including coffee mug, hat, mouse pad, and the like, on the Netscape Store web page mentioned above.

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Netscape 8 with the default "Fusion" theme and the integrated AIM/ICQ sidebar tab

Installing Netscape 8.0 on WinXP SP2 was flawless, and I couldn't avoid noticing that the company used the Nullsoft Installer to create the setup executable. For once, a company using their own technology. Too bad there's few guys left at Nullsoft, the company of Winamp fame. The program lets you import your bookmarks, favourites, and configuration from any of the installed browsers. Since I tested it on my "playground" system, it showed all the possible options: import settings from MSIE 6.0 SP1, from Mozilla Firefox, from Netscape 7.2, from the Mozilla Suite, or from the old Netscape 8.0 beta. Very impressive. I selected "Netscape 7.2", and it did its magic without hiccup.

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With the alternative 'Winscape' theme/look, showing the experimental INQ sidebar tab

The first difference one notices going from Mozilla Suite or the Netscape 7.2 version built on top of it, is that each browser tab has one "close" button, instead of having a single one in the left side of the screen, then, an icon appears on the "active" browser tab, indicating the level of "trust" placed on the source URL. The browser comes with a set of identified "safe" sites, like, of course, www.netscape.com, www.ebay.com, www.amazon.com, and the like. Showing its U.S.-centered design, when I loaded eBay's local affiliate MercadoLibre, it showed a trust level of "not sure". But the good part is that you can fine tune the "white list" as you wish, and enable or disable javascript at will not only globally, but for each specific site you visit.

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Per-site security controls

Perhaps the most interesting function is the ability to fine tune, from the same screen (in the "advanced" tab) the rendering engine used. So you can tell Netscape 8 to load a certain page with the MSIE engine, but with ActiveX disabled, for instance, while all other sites use by default the Firefox engine. This pre-loaded "white list" (which the browser can update from the Net automagically) has some surprises... if you configure a Netscape Webmail account for instance - to be accessed from a button in the toolbar- that button then leads to the new flash infested Netscape Webmail interface, and the Netscape 8 browser's white list switches to the MSIE engine to display that page. I guess old habits die hard and AOL webmasters are in love with the MSIE engine, no matter what.

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Netscape's new "white list" updated from the Net at user-selectable intervals

Leaving that aside, one nice surprise is the revival of the small, XUL based instant messenger client docked in the browser's sidebar -which can be opened/closed by pressing the F9 key-. This lightweight instant messenger client supports AIM and ICQ, and takes much less system resources than installing and running the full-blown AIM or ICQ software, the difference is of a few hundred kbytes of XUL and javascript code vs. half a dozen megabytes. Kudos to the "AOLNetscape8" team for recognizing that the IM sidebar client was one of the reasons some of us kept using Netscape 7.2. I also tried installing my experimental INQUIRER sidebar tab and it worked as well, as you can see below. If you want to test it, it's here.

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With the alternative 'Winscape' theme/look, showing the experimental INQ sidebar tab

Compatibility with Firefox extensions faces some hurdles. The Amazon.com A9 toolbar for Firefox installed flawlessly. There was one problem, however, because of the Netscape 8 team's weird decision to move the Netscape logo from the right side of the program window to the left. With the A9 toolbar installed, the round Netscape logo shows up above the A9 text entry field. Which just goes to prove that user interface rules and conventions -even if not written anywhere- are meant to be honoured, not broken. We the Netscape 8.0 beta testers complained vehemently about the stupid placement of the Netscape "throbber" logo in the left side, but our comments were largely ignored. The unofficial but Google-endorsed GoogleBar failed with a message "This toolbar does not support Netscape".

The handy and addictive StumbleUpon extension also showed the dreaded "Incompatible Extension" message. This often doesn't mean that these extensions will not work with NS8 due to technical issues or lack of compatibility, but rather because more often than not, there is code in the extension installers that checks for a specific Firefox version string, and since NS8 has a different one, the installer chokes and aborts the install process. It is expected that more script authors will start adding the NS8 user agent to their install scripts and hence these toolbars and extensions will be usable with NS8.

The "Multibar" concept saves vertical screen space by customizing "up to ten different browser toolbars" into a single one that you can access with a single click. Finally, an icon on the lower left side of the browser's window shows either the MSIE icon or the Firefox icon, depending on the engine currently being used to render a particular web page.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The good:

  • Security settings per-site is handy
  • Ability to switch specific sites to use the MSIE engine is very useful when you stumble upon sites coded by brain dead webmasters.
  • It's firefox, with a nice set of additions.

The bad

  • English only
  • It takes a while to get used to it, specially if coming from the Mozilla Suite or Netscape 7.2
  • Not all themes support NS8. It would have made sense to ship NS8 with a "Modern" like theme that followed the Netscape 7.x tradition. There is one available from a user in Japan, dubbed "Modoki Modern" and available here, sadly it still hasn't been updated to install on the non-beta Netscape 8.
  • Just two themes available for NS8 on the official "theme park"
  • It's still Firefox (see "Top Ten Firefox annoyances").
  • The official page only promotes the download of the small "active installer".
  • Not many toolbars and extensions currently install on top of NS8

The ugly

  • No Linux version
  • Not all themes support NS8. The two official ones are not enough diversity, imho.
  • AOL could code some of their web sites for standards-compliance so NS8 would use the Firefox gecko engine, NOT IE. This is specially true considering that the new Netscape Webmail web page is in the whitelist configured to use the IE engine.
  • It should be easy to configure the browser to gather weather data for locations outside the USA, and with weather data displayed in Celsius, not Fahrenheit degrees. It rather still shows a US-centric "zip code" approach to weather data gathering.

The Verdict

I give the Netscape 8.0 browser... no, I'm still too biased towards Netscape 7.2 and the Mozilla Suite, so I can give a proper rating. I will let you be the judge. It's a good, tasty mix of what you get after putting MSIE 6.0, Firefox and half-Netscape 7.2 in the blender and add sugar and some pepper. I personally still prefer Netscape 7.2 and the Mozilla Suite, but that's only me. YMMV. µ

 

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