Next-generation browser technology wins supporters

After more than two years, Netscape Communications Corp.'s experiment with open-source development is finally inching toward fruition. On Monday, the America Online Inc. subsidiary said it would launch a beta version of its Netscape 6 browser within 25 days. Seven vendors, — IBM, Intel Corp., Red Hat Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc., NetObjects Inc., Liberate Technologies and Nokia Corp. — announced support for Gecko, the open-source browser engine at the heart of Netscape 6.

Gecko is being touted as the most standards-compliant browser engine yet developed. Because of its small size, it is ideally suited for appliances, Netscape claimed.

Gecko was developed with input from, the open-source organization founded by Netscape two years ago. In January 1998, Netscape announced it would give away its Navigator browser for free and publish the source code. It shipped the open-source Navigator to developers in March 1998.

Netscape 6 will be the first Netscape browser to be based on code from, and the first to include Gecko. It will be the successor to the current Navigator 4.7.

Originally, Netscape had planned an interim version of its browser, to be called Navigator 5. "But we got clear feedback from developers that they didn't want an incremental upgrade, they wanted a clean rewrite," said Eric Krock, senior product manager at Netscape.

"We didn't know it was going to take this long," said Jeffrey Zeldman, a Web designer and group leader of advocacy group the Web Standards Project. But Zeldman is upbeat about the product.

"If Gecko delivers what it promises — and if other browser makers follow Netscape's lead here — the fundamental benefit is that it will enable us to write to standards instead of authoring to the deficiencies and quirks of various browsers," he said.

Netscape's parent company America Online uses Microsoft's competing Internet Explorer browser to power its online service. But AOL does intend to use Gecko as a component in future versions of its Instant Messenger and ICQ products and in its AOLTV set top box, Netscape officials said.

According to Netscape, IBM will aid the development of Gecko by adding support for bidirectional languages. Intel and Nokia will use Gecko in their jointly developed Internet-enhanced television project, which is based on another open-source product — Linux.

"If companies like IBM, Red Hat and Sun are endorsing Gecko — and if that endorsement means they are actually using it — it could make a huge difference" to the balance of powers in the browser market, Zeldman said.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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