Netscape gets last-minute reprieve

Another month needed to finish migration tools to Firefox and Flock

Just two days before it was to end support for Netscape Navigator, on Wednesday AOL LLC gave the browser a last-minute reprieve, saying it would extend support until March 1.

At the end of December, Tom Drapeau, the director of AOL's Netscape brand, surprised users when he stopped development of the browser and set Feb. 1 as the date when his team would stop issuing security updates.

Yesterday, Drapeau pushed out the support end date a full month, saying that Netscape and its partners needed more time to wrap up work on tools designed to help users migrate to Mozilla Corp.'s Firefox or Flock Inc.'s Flock browsers.

"Mozilla, Flock and AOL are working together to provide tools to ease the migration of existing Netscape browser users to our recommended Flock and Firefox alternatives," said Drapeau in an explanatory post to the Netscape blog. "AOL support for Netscape browsers has been extended one month, to March 1."

In addition, an upgrade will be issued to Netscape 9 users through the browser's integrated update feature to "streamline the process of choosing from these two great browser alternatives," Drapeau said.

Flock was a new recommendation from Drapeau, who last month cited only Firefox -- the code successor to Navigator -- as an alternative, but Flock had been touted by others on the Netscape team earlier this month. Flock, a free browser that stresses social networking features, is built on the Firefox code base.

Drapeau didn't specify what tools were in the works, but presumably they will include some kind of Netscape-to-Firefox migration assistant. Currently, the only way to move a user profile from the former to the latter is to manually copy the Netscape "profiles.ini" file and its folder to Firefox's directory. Flock, on the other hand, recently unveiled version 1.06, which includes Netscape migration features.

Nor did Drapeau elaborate on the reasons for Netscape's demise. In December, he named "AOL's current business focus" and an inability to revive Navigator's moribund market share as motivators for the move. At the time, however, sources close to Netscape called out AOL upper management's lack of interest and funding as the real reason why Drapeau pulled the plug.

According to one source, the lack of resources meant "we would not have been able to offer releases in a timely manner, which would have been a disservice to the brand as well as the end user."

Coincidentally, Mozilla celebrated its 10th anniversary just last Tuesday, Jan. 22. Several months before it was acquired by AOL, Netscape Communications Corp. in early 1998 announced it would release the browser's source code, a move that led several weeks later to the formation of the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, and eventually the creation of Firefox.

Last month, Asa Dotzler, currently Mozilla's company's director of community development, and one of the first paid employees of the Mozilla Foundation, said good riddance to Netscape on hearing Drapeau's news. "I'm glad that sad beast has finally been put down," Dotzler said in a post to his blog. He also didn't buy Drapeau's explanation for putting Netscape to rest.

"The real truth is probably closer to 'we weren't building a compelling enough product to be able use it to bring users to our ad-supported world and it doesn't make sense spending more on browser development than we recoup in increased ad revenue as a result of that browser work'," said Dotzler.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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