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Netscape 2.0 is the internet tool we've all been waiting for. All-singing and all-dancing, it's the harbinger of an age of integrated Internet applications that suddenly make the maze of the net accessible to everyone. It also provides the first mass-market outing for the exciting Java language, touted by Sun as the magic bullet for network applications.
Or is it just another bloated, badly-designed all-things-to-all-users application of the kind we've become so weary of in the past couple of years? Have Netscape Corporation lost their way?
Netscape: the story so far
Back in 1993, the world wide web was just an obscure backwater of the internet. What changed it into the photogenic star turn of the information superhighway was a new web browser -- Mosaic, from NCSA (the US National Center for Supercomputer Applications). Mosaic, unlike previous web browsers, knew how to handle inline images correctly, flowing text around pictures. It also had hooks to allow the user to set "helper applications" that could display file types it couldn't handle itself. Finally, it recognized a wider range of HTML tags than most of the then-prevalent browsers.
Mosaic was the star of 1994. At the end of that year, the team of graduate students and trainee programmers who had put it together defected from NCSA, to form a new company: Netscape Communications. At the beginning of 1995, Netscape the browser was launched, and it took the web by storm. Netscape, unlike its predecessor, was optimized for operations over a modem. It could handle inline JPEG images, and a whole slew of confusing, non-standard, but useful HTML tags. And Netscape was shareware.
However, the race for the title of best web browser is a really frenetic one. Most software is developed on a 18-36 month release cycle. Web browsers in contrast have a life of maybe 9-12 months. In late 1995, with Microsoft announcing its entry into the web browser field with Microsoft Internet Explorer, Netscape Communications felt the cold winds of competition breathing down their neck. Something Had To Be Done.
That "something" turns out to be Netscape 2.0. From early public beta releases in October 1995, through to the final release version in February 1996, Netscape 2.0 has grown more stable and -- if you earn your living from the internet -- almost indispensible.
Java for Dummies
Java is a programming language, developed by UNIX workstation vendors Sun Microsystems. It resembles C++, but cleaned up significantly; unlike C++ it is not compiled to the machine code of the computer it runs on, but to an abstract byte code that is then executed at high speed by an interpreter. This means that any computer with a Java interpreter can run compiled Java applications (or applets, code fragments executed within the context of a stand-alone application). Java is designed to produce small, fast programs. It has built-in facilities for communicating over the internet, and a library of interface tools (called awt) that lets Java applications display buttons, menus, and other objects. Java is designed so that compiled applets can be downloaded over the internet and executed safely inside a user's web browser, using the browser's window as a screen in which to display their output. Java applets can also call on external code resources elsewhere on the internet. Security is a big concern in Java; some security experts have actually named it "virus implementation language". To some extent their concerns are misplaced. Java doesn't permit applications to address memory freely, or to read and write files outside of a designated authorized area on the user's hard disk. Most interestingly, Java is small. Indeed, small "Java books", cheap computers with a modem jack and a built-in Java interpreter and web browser, should be on sale as early as summer 1996. These computers are designed to function like an old-fashioned computer terminal -- but one that plugs into the internet instead of a stand-alone mainframe, and that can run some programs locally. A JavaBook doesn't need anything like as much memory or disk space as a conventional personal computer; in fact, it is possible that they will be marketed as a plug-in cartridge for existing 32-bit games consoles (containing a Java interpreter ROM and a modem), turning your Sony PlayStation into the ultimate cheap internet client.
Netscape 2.0: a quart in a pint pot
To start with, it doesn't matter what kind of computer you've got -- Netscape 2.0 probably runs on it. Versions are available for Windows 95, Macintosh, and the most popular flavours of UNIX (notably SunOS, Solaris, Linux, and HP/UX). Different versions of Netscape look eerily similar; this is because Netscape doesn't follow all the user interface guidelines from Apple or Microsoft, but compromises in the interests of maintaining a common code base.
Secondly, Netscape 2.0 isn't just a web browser. It has fully integrated internet email and newsreader modules (that run in separate windows from the web browser). While these are still a little bit rough about the edges, they're still miles ahead of anything provided by other web browsers, to the point where Netscape 2.0 makes a credible stab at being the internet equivalent of one of those ubiquitous integrated application suites (like Microsoft Works) that tries to be all things to all users.
Thirdly, Netscape 2.0 doesn't just display HTML (hypertext) files and images. By means of a plug-in architecture, it can support just about any file format that programmers can devise. Plug-ins are already available for Adobe Acrobat, special mathematical layouts produced by Mathematica, and Macromedia Director productions (using the Shockwave format). Other plug-ins are under development, so that Netscape will be able to function as a general-purpose browser for any kind of information available on the internet. For example, VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) viewers are expected during the second half of 1996.
Surfing the Web with Netscape 2.0
Netscape 1.1 was the fastest web browser on the net; Netscape 2.0 is even faster. It achieves this by using several interesting techniques to speed up access.
Netscape 1.1 owed part of its speed advantage to its use of a cache. Every time it fetched a new file it stored a copy of it locally; if it got a request for the same file again, it would just check to see whether it had changed, and if not, use the copy stored in the cache. However, the cache tended to fill up with hundreds or thousands of small files. Netscape 2.0 uses a database to keep track of information about files in its cache, so that it spends less time wallowing around trying to figure out whether to display the cached file or fetch a new copy.
Netscape 1.1 was also able to use proxy servers -- web servers that in effect act as a "group" cache for all the web browsers using the same proxy. Netscape 2.0 has better facilities for proxy configuration, including the ability to use different web proxies under different circumstances.
Like the earlier version, Netscape 2.0 is able to multiplex HTTP connections -- that is, it can slurp in several files in parallel, rather than having to pull them in one at a time. (This is especially important when displaying pages that contain lots of images; it means Netscape can begin showing the images and drawing the page at the same time, and makes it feel a lot faster.)
In addition to the speed improvements, Netscape 2.0 has some more features that most web browsers don't. It can display a number of HTML tags that are part of the draft HTML 3.0 specification (such as subscript and superscript tags), and it implements in full the draft standard for client-side imagemaps. (That is: you can embed an image in a web page, and make different areas of it into clickable links that take you to other locations on the web.) It also adds some non-standard tags for doing useful things, such as changing the colour of text, or (more importantly) dividing windows up into "frames" which can be scrolled or manipulated independently.
Be warned, though, that it's a bad idea to use those non-standard extensions to HTML in your documents. They may look good, but anyone who doesn't use Netscape can't read them -- and the status quo in web browsers changes so fast that you shouldn't make any assumptions.
Netscape is now a fairly powerful electronic mail reader, about on a par with the noncommercial version of Eudora. It can receive email either by reading in from a drop file or by connecting to a POP3 (Post Office Protocol) server, and it can send out email by connecting to an SMTP server. This means that it's not 100% useful as a standalone mail tool to Demon Internet users (who will also need an SMTP mail client to pull in their email), but it should be all you need when using a Pipex or UK Online mailbox (or any other service provider who offers POP3). (I should add that I have used Netscape as an email tool for a Demon connection by running my own SMTP-to-POP3 gateway.)
The email browser displays in a window of its own, split vertically into two segments. The upper segment contains (on the left) a list of mailboxes, and (on the right) a list of messages in the current mailbox. The lower segment contains the text of the current message (as selected in the top-right area).
This arrangement, while fairly useable, demands a large screen if you have more than about a dozen messages in your inbox at any one time. (The same goes for a lot of Netscape's displays -- did any of the programmers who developed it still have to work on a standard SVGA monitor?)
You can transfer mail to other mailboxes, which are displayed in a hierarchical menu; while Netscape doesn't have built-in message filtering, the manual filing system is pretty efficient.
Nice touches in the email tool include the fact that any HTML in an email message is rendered correctly; you get italic and boldface when you read your mail, and any URLs (hypertext links) are displayed correctly -- clicking on a link in an email message opens a new web browser window targetted on the link destination.
Netscape uses the MIME protocol to handle non-ASCII mail and binary file attachments, so you can exchange files via mail between Netscape and most other sophisticated internet email programs (including Eudora).
The Netscape news reader is a bit less polished than the mail reader, and in particular may be less than useful to UK-based users because it is an online newsreader expects you to be connected to a news server all the time that you are reading news.
Like the mail reader, the newsreader runs in a separate window that is split into three areas (top left, top right, and bottom). The top left area is a collapsible outline of those newsgroups that you are subscribed to, stored below the news server that you are receiving them from. (This is a nice touch, because it means you can use different news servers for different newsgroups.) The top right area displays the article threads in the newsgroup you are currently reading, while the bottom area displays the text of the current message. Articles can be displayed in subject order, or threaded in order of follow-up.
This newsreader is fairly standard, but suffers from two problems. Firstly, it is hungry for screen real-estate; the list of articles is displayed above the article bodies, and there's no easy way of zooming and unzooming the article reader. Secondly, and more seriously, the newsreader demands an online connection to an NNTP (news) server; there is no facility to download a batch of news to the local system and browse it offline. To be fair, offline reading is not what Netscape is about; but the online news mode means that there is a subjective delay whenever you select a new group or article to read (while the data is downloaded from the server) and you can't read news over a dial-up connection without running up a hefty phone bill.
A third problem is that Netscape doesn't support the more advanced killfile scoring features that have been appearing in UNIX based newsreaders of late. A "killfile" is a list of regular expressions that a newsreader checks for in articles; if it finds a match for a given pattern, it "kills" the article. Scoring systems associate a positive or negative numerical value with each pattern; articles are then given a score, and only those that pass some threshold value are displayed -- or articles are displayed in order of interest as established by their score. Scoring is one of the most powerful tools available for wading through large quantities of online information, and it is a shame that Netscape's killfile mechanism is rudimentary (compared to, say, slrn on UNIX or Newshopper on the Macintosh).
Netscape isn't just an integrated application for the internet; it's a client application for Netscape Communications' range of internet servers. Netscape aren't marketing their products at individuals or net surfers so much as the nascent field of intranetworking -- the vast corporate TCP/IP networks that bind multinationals together. Netscape sell web servers and NNTP servers that use a special encryption protocol (SSL) to talk to Netscape web browsers over secure connections. By using SSL they hope to circumvent the well-known insecurity of the internet, permitting companies to run secure circuits over the public networks. This is an essential prerequisite for electronic commerce, and it's also pretty important if you're a corporate MIS manager worrying about opening up your network so that your co-workers can log in from home.
There was a fairly severe bug in the SSL implementation Netscape released in version 1.1 of Netscape; this was fixed with release 1.12, and the new Netscape 2.0 browser has the current secure implementation. (But bear in mind that the US government ITAR restrictions mean that the effectively secure encryption using 128-bit keys available to Netscape in the USA aren't available for export; Netscape is forced to cripple the export version of its browser so that it only uses a 40-bit key.)
Netscape is now approaching the level of complexity required to call itself a graphical user interface in its own right; a number of modern client-server applications exist on the web, using Netscape as a terminal to display their front end (while the back end runs on a web server somewhere). It appears that the new Java and plug-in capabilities are aimed at turning Netscape into something new -- a replacement for the existing operating systems that we work with. It's easier to create a graphical interface in HTML than in Visual Basic (albeit somewhat more restrictive, at present), and for many types of application this is quite clearly the way to go. Java lets you build new types of control in, tools that are not part of (and never will be part of) HTML.
The Evil Empire strikes Back: Java in the software industry
Microsoft decided in early 1995 that this internet business must be worth getting into; in late 1995 they brought out a web browser and announced a proprietary suite of internet document servers and clients collectively called "blackbird". The standards that their web browser adhered to were somewhat arbitrary, to say the least; its ability to handle operating-system-specific font specifications earned it a lot of flameage from those quarters of the net community who cared about such things as compatability. Stung by their inability to dislodge Netscape's 70% domination over the browser market, Microsoft returned with a second release of the Microsoft Internet Explorer. This browser is said to be a considerable improvement on the first version. It is also worth noting that in December 1995, Microsoft bit the bullet and formally licensed Java from Sun Microsystems. Until then, Microsoft had been insisting that Visual Basic was the way to go in developing migratory applets for the web; however, by December the Java bandwagon had developed so much momentum that even the Evil Empire (as one speaker at the WWW'95 conference labelled the boys from Seattle) had to jump on board. Everyone in the industry, with the possible exception of Apple, is now on the Java bandwagon. (Apple appears to be resolutely ignoring Java in favour of technologies like OpenDoc and CyberDog, but the Apple user base is enthusiastically getting ready to go for Java, as compiler house Metrowerks brings the first Macintosh Java compiler to market in early 1996. Don't ignore those Mac people; they're creative types, and about 40% of the material on the web is actually created on Macintoshes). In fact, it's hard to see how Microsoft can square a dedicated interest in Java with their own support for OLE 2. Java is about distributed code objects that can execute on any platform, from a Nintendo to a Cray. OLE 2 is mostly restricted to Windows (although implementations for MacOS and other platforms are available). The computer industry as a whole is a lot bigger than the desktop market, and Java thus has a larger constituency to reach. Moreover, OLE 2 is hobbled by backward compatability with existing software. Java, by cutting the gordian knot of compatability, has managed to leapfrog the tedious committee process that has given us such dromedaries as OpenDoc and CORBA -- object standards that are baroque and complex because they need to support a whole slew of existing software. For a long time now, the industry has been suffering from bloated, over-complex monolithic applications. Java promises to cut free from all of this, and the presence of even nominal support from Microsoft is going to give Java a huge boost. Facing development tools from the likes of Metrowerks and Borland, and support on every platform in the computer industry, Microsoft are going to have an uphill struggle if they want to steer people into using OLE 2 next year.
The overwhelming risk for Netscape is that the browser is becoming too complex. There are other Java-based browsers; for example, the (free) HotJava browser from Sun Microsystems. HotJava takes a minimalist approach; it is simply a Java interpreter, and the entire web application is written in Java. Because it is extensible, it can grow to encompass all the features built into a monolithic application like Netscape. Netscape, in contrast, is a hefty traditional application; it can interpret Java programs, but it runs them more as an afterthought than as its fundemantal raison d'etre. HotJava is therefore a cleaner, simpler, design. In the frenetic world of web browsers, new technologies come out every twelve months. A simpler, more maintainable program can therefore make more progress, with less risk of horrible bugs appearing.
The software industry has adopted Java enthusiastically, as the focus of its effort to build interchangeable code modules; Netscape still hasn't rearranged itself around Java, and is therefore exposed to the risk of being technologically leap-frogged. We've seen this sort of process before; WordStar pioneered the word processing market on CP/M and MSDOS back in the late 1970's and early 1980's, only to be leapfrogged in popularity by the more useful Word Perfect. Word Perfect, however, failed to make the transition to Windows fast enough and was trampled in the rush to Microsoft Word. Netscape today has 70% of the web browser market, but whether they can maintain this lead when they are still focussed on monolithic applications rather than Java-rich object-oriented frameworks is an open question.
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