Netscape 6.0 Released

by David Flanagan

Netscape has released the final version of the Netscape 6.0 Web browser/application suite. You can read about Netscape 6.0 and download a network installer for it from the Netscape Web site. You can also order Netscape 6.0 on CD for US$5.95. According to an article on the New York Times Web site, the Netscape 6.0 CD will also be distributed to end users in "numerous magazines owned by Time Warner." (Netscape is owned by AOL, which is in the process of acquiring Time Warner.) To promote the new browser, Netscape has also announced a sweepstakes for Netscape 6.0 users. (Note that the name of the product is now officially "Netscape," which is what people have been calling it for a long time, instead of "Navigator" or "Communicator.")

The release of Netscape 6.0 does not include fixes for any of the bugs mentioned in my earlier article. That article included a petition (which was signed by over 1,300 Web developers) directed to the Netscape Product Delivery Team (PDT) asking them to delay the final release of Netscape 6.0 until pending standards-compliance bugs were resolved. No members of the PDT responded before the release, but according to Eric Krock, the Group Product Manager for Tools and Components at Netscape, the members of the PDT did review my article. However, they did not agree that the bugs I mentioned were severe enough to delay the release. Eric's opinions on the general software engineering dilemma of fixing bugs versus shipping a product are described in an essay he wrote shortly before my article appeared. After the release of Netscape 6.0, Eric offered the following official response from Netscape, which is included verbatim here:

As has been proven by published test suites and verified by independent experts, Netscape 6 has the best standards compliance of any browser ever released. It supports more Web standards, more deeply, more consistently across more platforms than any other browser available today. Its release is great news for Web developers  because now they can use Web standards to develop the kind of Web content, services, and applications they have always wanted to create and enable users to access them from any of the platforms or devices that the Netscape Gecko browser engine runs on.

Like all software that ever has shipped or ever will ship, Netscape 6 is being released with some known bugs, including some that affect standards compliance--but it has fewer of these than any other browser. Netscape carefully reviewed  all open bugs, including those cited in David Flanagan's recent essay, prior to releasing Netscape 6, and is convinced that the remaining limitations are minor and well documented and pale in comparison to the benefits of enabling development to such a powerful platform of open standards.  It would be wrong to leave Web developers handcuffed to the limitations of older browsers any longer than absolutely necessary.  Because Netscape 6 has shipped, Web developers can start building applications that will transform the Internet from a collection of static HTML pages to a rich experience of powerful, cross-platform, cross-device Web applications that will revolutionize the software industry. Users can begin upgrading from older, less standards-compliant browsers and benefiting from both these next-generation Web applications and from the innovative new features of Netscape 6 itself.

Thanks to Netscape 6, the Web no longer has to wait for the promise of standards-based Web applications, but can start building and using them today.

The release notes for Netscape 6 include a list of user-visible bugs. The developer release notes contain a list of standards-compliance bugs that may affect Web developers. Neither document is a complete list of bugs; user-visible bugs were listed only if they were considered severe enough, and standards-compliance bugs were listed only if they had been "nominated" for listing by someone in the Mozilla developer community. Both lists of bugs contain links to the Mozilla project's bugzilla database, from which you can get full details about the bugs and their resolution. Netscape is to be commended for being so open about the outstanding bugs, and it is important to remember that Netscape 6.0 is a huge piece of software with very good standards compliance and many features that are not buggy.

CNET has written a thorough review of Netscape 6.0 and awarded the product a rating of 7 out of 10. The review is worth reading because it explains many of the interesting new features included in this release. It also contains some hard performance numbers that compare Netscape 6.0 with Navigator 4.7 and Internet Explorer 5.5. I'm not aware of any other formal product reviews for Netscape 6.0, but there are discussions of it at the slashdot and mozillazine Web sites. (There is also another slashdot discussion, although it is not as directly relevant.)

My personal experience with Netscape 6.0 confirms my opinion that it is still beta-quality software (at least on Linux). The installer application froze up part way through the first two attempts to download Netscape 6.0 (this might be related to heavy network traffic, but the installer itself also froze with a blank gray screen). Once I got Netcape installed, it seemed to display the Web sites I visit frequently just fine. I was dismayed to discover, however, that it still prints out debugging messages when it starts, when it exits, and when it loads a page. I'm an old-fashioned Unix user: I like to start applications by typing its name in a terminal window. If I don't want to be barraged by debugging cruft, I've got to redirect the output of Netscape 6.0 to /dev/null. Another nit that got my goat was the -version flag: when Netscape is started with this flag, it is supposed to print out its version number and other version information. Instead, it just displays the text "version info" (after displaying the usual startup debugging messages).

The vast majority of users will launch Netscape by clicking an icon on their desktop. They will never see this debugging output, and will never use or even know about the -version flag. So what's the problem? For me, it's an issue of trust: As a programmer, I evaluate bugs like these as a sign of sloppiness, and I assume (whether justifiably or not) that there is similar slop throughout the product. If the release schedule was so rushed that no one had time to fix trivial things like this, what else wasn't cleaned up?

Despite my unease with Netscape 6.0, its time to move on. My petition was a last-minute, last-ditch attempt by myself and the more than one thousand Web developers who signed it to influence Netscape's release schedule. We failed, and now that Netscape 6.0 has been released to the world, our opinions about the maturity of the product are no longer relevant. I continue to believe that the release of Netscape 6.0 was premature, but I am not a product reviewer, and I cannot predict (nor do I want to influence) how Netscape 6.0 will be received by the general user community.

While many of us in the Web development community may be disappointed that Netscape was not able to release a more robust browser, the fact is that the browser has been released, and people are going to start visiting our Web sites with it. Let's make the best of the situation. Remember that despite its problems, Netscape 6.0 does have better standards compliance than Internet Explorer 5.5, and its release marks the beginning of a new, standards-based era for Web developers. Although the transition to that new era may be rockier than we'd like, it is time to get started. Get yourself a copy of Netscape 6.0, test the Web sites you maintain with it, report any bugs you find in it, and start coding to the HTML, XHTML, XML, DOM, CSS, and ECMAScript Web standards!