diary of a mad

06 april 2000


 relapse of a browser junkie, iii: netscape 6

Hi... my name is John. I'm a browser junkie. But of course you knew that; why else would I be here?

It's been a rough week-- two new browsers in two days. How was I to know that, the day after I gave in and installed Opera 4 Beta 2, I'd be tempted again, by Netscape 6 Preview Release 1?

I had easily avoided the nightly builds, and I was even able to keep my hands off the milestones, but when Netscape put its own brand on this Mozilla build, no Higher Power could help me resist-- I mean, we've all been waiting so long...

Excuse me? I sound like James Joyce? Oh, I'm sorry-- let me back up a bit:

Two years ago, in a desperate bid to avoid losing the Browser War to Microsoft, Netscape released the source code for Netscape Navigator and Communicator to the public, and the Mozilla Organization was born.

What's Mozilla? Jim Hamerly and Tom Paquin explain:

The body of Communicator source code at Netscape was called "Mozilla." Mozilla was a term initially created by Jamie Zawinsky and company during the development of Navigator. The team was working at a similarly frantic pace to create a beast vastly more powerful than Mosaic, and the word became the official code name for Navigator. Later the big green dinosaur became an inside joke, then a company mascot, and finally a public symbol. Now the name came into use as the generic term referring to the open-source web browsers derived from the source code of Netscape Navigator. The move was on to "Free the Lizard."

Via the Internet, a sometimes uneasy alliance of Netscape programmers and volunteers began the almost unbelievably difficult task of tearing apart the source code and rebuilding it. They tested nightly "builds" of the software; periodically, they tested "milestone releases" even more rigorously. It's well worth your time to take a look at how Mozilla evolved.

AOL bought Netscape. Microsoft released Internet Explorer 5. Still there was no hint from Mozilla.org as to when a stable browser might become available. Pundits pronounced the Browser War over, with Microsoft the victor. The Mozilla team struggled on, now with no motivation except to Get It Right.

In February of this year, with the second anniversary of the source code release approaching, an AOL executive previewed "Netscape 6" for financial analysts. A few days later, a note in a Mozilla.org status update indicated that AOL/Netscape was turning up the heat under its own employees.

"The Netscape development and QA team is still working with great focus on getting out a commercially branded beta in short order," wrote Netscape's Jim A. Roskind:

We think that getting a beta out under the Netscape branded umbrella will wake a lot of the world up about mozilla. The mozilla team has contributed a great deal of effort to the project, and we're hoping to be among the first companies to bring the results to the hands of many millions of developers and users.

So I knew it was coming. After waiting for more than two years, do you blame me for clicking the Download link, when Preview Release 1 became available on Wednesday?

I can see that those of you who were strong enough to resist are wondering what it's like. Well, my mother taught me, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." So...

In the dozens of times Netscape 6 Preview Release 1 crashed on me during a couple hours of testing, it never once took Windows with it!

It's hard to be objective about this version of the browser, because it's such a long way from finished. It often takes repeated clicks on the Back and Reload buttons before they work. Many, many preferences are greyed out or nonexistent; you can't make text larger/smaller, turn off the underlining of links, use a local Style Sheet, etc. You can't play music. The chrome, which matches NetCenter, looks like (be nice, John! --Mom) a very good effort by a third grader.

These aren't long-term concerns; it will be possible for the user to customize the browser's appearance, and all of the disabled features will no doubt be working in the beta release Netscape will jokingly call final.

In the long run, I'm sure that these bugs will be corrected in some version of Mozilla, whether or not it carries the Netscape brand.

(Correction: In the first version of this page, I reported a bug in the browser's Cascading Style Sheet implementation. I was wrong-- the error was in my own Style Sheet. I am greatly indebted to Chris Adams for catching my mistake, and I deeply regret the error.)

What won't be fixed is the size. Netscape's Marketing Mavens brag:

Netscape 6 is a full-featured yet lean browser that bucks the trend in software bloat. Netscape 6 was developed from the ground up to be as small as possible while still providing a rich feature set. The result is a very powerful product that you can download quickly, even over a modem.

While it's true that Netscape 6 is small compared to IE 5 and Netscape 4 bloatware, it's also true that at 5.5 MB, the Netscape 6PR1 browser download alone is nearly four times the size of Opera 4B2, which includes browser, email and news clients in a download of just 1.5 MB. That is small.

I think maybe I'll play with Netscape 6 for a few days, maybe submit some bug reports, then uninstall it, because I'm pretty sure the only people who'll be using it regularly any time soon are the people trying to fix it. Or maybe I'll just uninstall it now; it's not much fun to use in this far from finished state.

Does the fact that I feel this way mean I'm on the road to recovery?

Thanks for letting me share...

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