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Battle of the Browsers

Browsers offer expanded options
Some rival browsers out there can offer you an alternative
Two new UH courses online

Advertiser Staff Writer

They’re called Web browsers, even though these days they’re expected to do so much more than that.

They’re the programs that translate the complex coding of Web pages into something ordinary folks can “browse.” But many of them also collect your e-mail, and might even organize it for you.

They might take you by the hand as you search for Web radio stations or video clips. Some of them help you hang around the virtual water cooler and chat with your buddies.

It all sounds so friendly, and yet the browser software market was ground zero of a brutal battle.

“I think the war is over, and Internet Explorer is the winner by a landslide,” said Brad White, a Honolulu Macintosh user who now favors Internet Explorer, the Microsoft browser that finally toppled the champion Netscape. Netscape fought back successfully in an antitrust lawsuit charging Microsoft had unfairly commandeered the browser market by packaging Internet Explorer in PC manufacturer deals. The federal ruling forcing the breakup of Microsoft resulted, but consumer habits had already been forged.

“It’s too bad, but Netscape seems to have dropped out of the game. Maybe they will make a comeback. After all, now they are owned by one of the largest Internet organizations in the world (America Online).”

A comeback is clearly the intent of Netscape 6, a version that came out in October after languishing on drawing boards for more than two years. It’s called No. 6, but it’s more of a total reconstruction than an upgrade. The hope: to recapture some of the customers lost to IE. Netscape’s acquisition by America Online last year was also seen as its salvation.

If you’re thinking it’s safe to emerge from the bomb shelter, there’s more: Microsoft is going after America Online’s niche, mostly new Net arrivals who feel comfortable with the user-friendly AOL browser that’s built in to the service. MSN Explorer, also released in the fall, is a version of IE that, like AOL, uses picture icons and other graphic devices to guide users through various aspects of Web-wandering.


Non-AOL Web surfers, who connect to the Net and then choose their own browser, soon become accustomed to its face. If they don’t like Netscape 6, for example, it may be just a preference for a cleaner appearance over the program’s collection of file folders (called My Sidebar).

But other shortcomings are less debatable. A real problem with MSN Explorer, for example, is that you can only use it to get e-mail through an MSN or Hotmail system that stores the e-mail on the Web. The browser won’t work with classic e-mail readers, like Outlook Express, that enable you to download e-mail into your own computer.

And critics of Netscape 6, for example, say it’s slow to load and buggy. In The Advertiser test, problems included the Preferences window opening with one of the bottom options inaccessible and sluggish performance by the e-mail reader.

Michael Wise, a Mo‘ili‘ili resident who works as a system administrator for Internet service provider LavaNet, has taken a test flight on Netscape 6. His assessment of the software, he said via e-mail, “can be summed up currently as ‘Not Yet Ready For Prime-Time.’”

Wise noted that, unlike its predecessor, the new edition would load certain pages in an annoying fashion.

Netscape 6, he said, “will resize the space reserved for the graphics as they are loaded,” he said. “Thus the text on the display will get shoved around during the load, making reading the page during the loading process difficult.

“It’s been a few months, and there has not been a subsequent release,” he added. “This would not be my choice for my ‘only’ browser. And considering the manini (small) annoyances, it is not my choice for my default browser. I’m still quite happy with Netscape 4.76.”

Downloading the basics

Netscape 6 is available for free download, for both Windows and Macintosh computers (home.netscape.com/download/index.html). Windows users can go to the Microsoft Network (MSN) site for MSN Explorer (explorer.msn.com/home.htm); there is no Macintosh version.

In our test, both downloaded and installed easily. MSN Explorer works with a Hotmail or MSN e-mail account; in order to collect e-mail sent to your other addresses, you have to access your Hotmail account at the main Hotmail site (www.hotmail.com). The version of the Hotmail inbox that appears in MSN Explorer does not offer access to non-Web-based e-mail (POP accounts).

Explorer rounds up utilities, like chat, instant messaging and creating photo-sharing pages for families. There’s also a built-in version of Windows Media Player that routes the user to video clips and music files, but it’s cluttered and the viewing experience, on a tiny screen, is unsatisfying.

If this is your first browser, MSN Explorer is not hard to figure out. But its limitations (the e-mail system, primarily) and its strange appearance might not appeal to an experienced Web surfer who likes the browser they use now.

Netscape 6 is trying to appeal to this preference for familiarity: Among its options is a way to shift back to the “classic” Netscape appearance. But things are still in different places, and many people balk at change that seems unnecessary.

Kathy Durham of Makakilo, who manages the banking pages for the Web guide About.com, installed Netscape 6 in her father’s computer over the holidays. She found all the “sidebar” tools visually disruptive.

“Netscape 6 didn’t crash, but it was slow and clunky,” she said via e-mail. “Clutter is a good word. I thought it was busy and confusing.

“I’m online most of every day and still had trouble finding things and figuring out how to do routine tasks. Since it was my dad’s computer and I had taught him with Netscape, I thought it was simply too different and would only confuse him.

“I am going to try it again now that I’m home and the holidays are over to see if there are new features that are worth the learning curve.”

A matter of habit

It takes a lot to shake people free of browser habits, and T. David Burns, a Honolulu Web surfer, is sticking with Internet Explorer.

“I’ve been assimilated,” he said in an e-mail. “I used to use Netscape, then for reasons I’ve forgotten, I went through a period where I was using both Netscape and IE, then I began to just use IE.

“It must have been something rather subtle, since I am not a big fan of Microsoft,” he added. “It may have been something as silly as ‘I’ll use Netscape for this and IE for that’ and then ‘this’ ended up not being very important.”

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