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Netscape6: A New Look for Linux Users

by Chris Halsall
04/07/2000
   Netscape 6 for Linux Highlights

Download: Unlike the Mac and PC versions of Netscape which have a small initial installer, the Linux version is a full gzipped TAR file containing the complete program.

New Sidebar: The Sidebar on the left of the browser window allows you to easily organize your links and collapses with a click of the blue bar on the divider.

Nav. Controls: The navigation controls have been reduced to a bare minimum.

Bookmarks: The file format is compatible with earlier versions of Netscape allowing bookmarks to be easily imported.

Join our discussion in the O'Reilly Network Browsers Forum.

It's been a little more than two years since Netscape released their browser source code into the hands of the Open Source community and became known as the Mozilla project. This week, with a fair amount of excitement, Netscape released the first browser based on the Mozilla code-base, Netscape 6.0 Pre-Release 1, or NS6PR1.

Somewhat later than many had hoped, this release is important both in demonstrating to Netscape users what the near future holds, and to reaffirm the commitment to the Mozilla-based browser by Netscape's new owners, AOL. It's also important to realize that this release is very much an early beta (some might argue late alpha) version, so not everything works exactly the way it should, and the browser can crash frequently.

Warnings of early code aside, NS6PR1's new rendering engine, Gecko, can handle pages which older versions of Netscape couldn't. It can also render pages "on the fly" in that it doesn't have to wait until it knows all image sizes before being able to display the page. Like Internet Explorer, it will re-render the page in real-time as it gains additional information about the page elements. On slower connections, or busy servers, this can dramatically improve perceived performance.

Trying it out on Linux

Binary versions of Netscape 6.0 PR 1 are available from the Netscape Download page. There's a Linux version in addition to Windows and Mac downloads. Unlike the other versions, which have a small installer that allows you to control the final download, the Linux version is a full gzipped TAR file containing the complete program and all support files.

Download the .tar.gz file into a temporary directory, and then unpack it with the command "tar -xzvf [path to tar.gz file]" while in a directory you wish to store Netscape 6 in, say "~/ns6/". Keep in mind you'll need approximately 35 MegaByte of free storage for the various files, so your home directory may not be the best choice. Also, it's a good idea to remove a "~/.mozilla" directory if it exists, as there have been reports of Netscape 6 PR 1 exiting when it encounters old versions of the config files.

To run the browser, you must be in the "package" directory which is created by the archive (e.g. "cd ~/ns6/package/") and execute the netscape command (e.g. "./netscape") there. This may cause problems for people trying to add NS6PR1 to their GUI menu tree, so running from the shell is probably best for this version.

When launching the browser for the first time, a window will pop up entitled "Create New Profile". It's a "wizard", and after clicking "Next" you'll be given a chance to create a custom profile, or to accept the default of "mozProfile". A few seconds after "Finish" is clicked, , and several pages of debugging information from the launching shell, a window will pop up which looks like, smells like, and tastes like a Netscape browser.

More than a few things are different though. First off, there's now a sidebar on the left hand side with (by default) six tab areas: CNN.com, What's Related, Search, Buddy List, Stocks and News. The contents of the side-bar can be edited by way of the "customize..." button, it can be resized or shrunk by dragging or clicking, respectively, on the light blue bar in the center of the dividing line, or hidden entirely from a "View" menu option.

Figure 1. Netscape 6 brings a new, refreshing look to the browser window.

The navigation controls have been reduced to the bare minimum, with only forward, back, reload, cancel and search buttons being available, plus the required URL field. The usual Bookmarks pull-down menu has been combined with what used to be called the "Personal Toolbar", and also includes the "Home" button whose target can be set from a Preferences panel, and a "My Netscape" button which can't be removed, plus other links the user may wish to edit themselves. The main menu-bar has also been expanded to include another instance of the Bookmarks menu, an MSIE inspired Go menu, plus a "Tasks" menu to replace the "Communicator" menu.

Those who want to continue using their bookmarks will be pleased to know the file format is compatible (as in, plain old HTML), so simply coping the Netscape 4.x bookmark.html file to the profile directory created above will clone the bookmarks. For example, "cp ~/.netscape/bookmark.html ~/.mozilla/mozProfile/" will do the job for the default profile. Do this without NS6 running, though, or you'll find NS6 overwrites the bookmarks again as it exits.

First Impressions

There's no question that Netscape 6 PR 1 is a beta release. Some things don't work, and other things are a bit unpredictable. For example, while the email client is mostly functional, there doesn't appear to be any way to actually view a downloaded e-mail except by replying to it. The preferences panel for font control is another example, in that sometimes it works, and other times it doesn't. Often exiting and restarting will fix a panel which is acting up.

Another feature which isn't yet working is the drag-and-drop function of a link in one window into another, nor does the middle button work to open a link in a new window. Right-clicking will bring up a menu which lets you do this though, and you can drag and drop from one window's URL field into another.

Even with the difficulties though, NS6PR1 is worth a test-drive, especially if you're involved with web-page creation. More is working than isn't, and NS6PR1 supports the best standards conformance of any browser available. Supported is CSS1 and 2, W3C's DOM level 1, Resource Description Framework (RDF) and Javascript 1.5, along with secure socket layer (SSL) for secure transactions. Java's not yet included in the Linux version, but a framework exists (the OJI) for inserting different Java Virtual Machines as they become available.

Overall performance is a bit slower than what one sees under Netscape 4.x, but is quite a bit quicker than earlier versions of Mozilla. The amount of memory consumed is also more than Netscape currently needs, although this should also improve as Netscape 6 approaches a final release.

Also worth experimenting with is the new integration between the browser and the Netscape web sites and various search engines. There's also much better control of cookies, passwords and addresses, and for the first time Linux users have access to the AOL Instant Messenger system through their browser.

Final Thoughts

The Mozilla project, on which Netscape 6 is based, has been an important test case for the Open Source methodology. While taking longer than some expected to produce a browser for the average desktop user, the Mozilla team should be proud of their accomplishment.

Not only was the browser effectively re-written from the ground up, but it is now a highly customizable, cross-platform, standards compliant and completely open software architecture upon which just about anything can be built. The Mozilla team have fulfilled the original Netscape promise: middleware which can allow the OS to disappear.

Is NS6PR1 ready for everyday use by end-users? No. But web site designers should use it every day, even if only along-side their regular browser or to test sites during development.

Is NS6PR1 a challenger to Microsoft's Internet Explorer? Not yet, but it will be soon. And I suspect the Mozilla technology will be finding its way into many applications, since you can't beat the licensing terms. And if AOL choose it as their default browser, Netscape could very quickly regain the lead in browser share.

May we live in interesting times.

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