In search of a better browser
Friday, June 9th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
If the U.S. Justice Department has its way, Microsoft's Internet Explorer will face severe competition for dominance of the Web browser world.
IE will be split from the Windows operating system to stand on its own under several scenarios in the antitrust case against Microsoft. "At a minimum, I think all sides recognized that browser choice is something that needs to be an option for everybody," says Drew Cohen, chairman and chief executive officer of NeoPlanet, which makes an alternative browser by the same name. "Some of us happen to think that we're in a good position to provide just that." Microsoft's anti-competitive practices, the government contends, were directly responsible for boosting IE from No-wheresville in 1996 to its current breathtaking heights. Various unscientific assessments give IE command of at least 70 percent of all Internet-connected computers.
Presumably, the ongoing legal action will bring new competition to an arena littered with casualties. But just who is left to joust for the browser title?
Besides No. 2 Netscape, there are dozens of idiosyncratic also-rans still hanging around. Most fill quirky niches, appealing to people who crave features such as artsy browser looks, or skins (NeoPlanet), multiple viewing panes (Opera), speedy loading for Macintosh machines (iCab) or zippy, text-only Web surfing (Lynx).
The world's first graphical browser, NCSA Mosaic, is still available, although support is dormant. Mozilla, Netscape's effort at creating an open-source browser platform, is struggling through development (further description below). Open source is a longtime software movement in which almost anyone with an interest can write code to develop and improve products. Meanwhile, the man who brought you the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, is toying with his own collaborative Web browsing/authoring tool, Amaya.
Alternative browsers are scattered all over the Net. Evolt browsers.evolt.org lists more than 80 running on platforms from Amiga to OS/2, the old Microsoft/IBM operating system. And Browserwatch browserwatch.internet.com lists dozens made for Windows alone.
If you're happy with the performance of Netscape 4.0 or Internet Explorer 5.0 or more recent versions, most of these downloads will wind up simply creating disk clutter. If you long for something different or have a specific task in mind, there are plenty of choices.
Whether any is a worthy pretender to Microsoft's browser throne, only time will tell. The face of browsers may change drastically over the next few years. Beyond the legal machinations of the Microsoft antitrust case, new forces are constantly emerging.
Lately, for example, streaming media giant Real-Networks has raised eyebrows by quietly adding Web page viewing to a version of its popular software.
That allows RealNetworks to stream multimedia events and display Web content on the desktop through a single unified program. Such fused, multi-faceted browsers may prove formidable.
Then again, there is some sparse evidence that Web surfers still think Netscape has a chance against IE. In a recent Dave's Virtually Useless Poll www.davesweb.com/poll/pastpolls.asp 87 percent of the Netscape users said they thought the browser war was still winnable. Of course, about the same percentage of Internet Explorer users said they thought the war was finished long ago.
Here are some options for your browsing pleasure:
Systems: Windows 95/95/98 and Internet Explorer 4.0 or higher Cost: Free Download: Under 2MB Gray boxes got you feeling blue? Is the blandness of Netscape and IE boring you stiff? About 4.5 million Web surfers feel just the same way. They've switched to the chameleonlike NeoPla-net, which changes its look and feel on a user's whim.
NeoPlanet is technically not a browser but an overlay to Internet Explorer. Microsoft's product is still required to take advantage of NeoPlanet's original features, buttons and color schemes. Third-party developers, film companies and just plain old users have created an ever-widening selection of NeoPlanet looks. More than 500 are now available. Many are stunning. Each comes with an original sound scheme woven into its operation. If it gets too noisy for co-workers, the ear candy feature of NeoPlanet can be easily disabled. In the last year, NeoPlanet has been busy adding features and signing up intriguing partnerships. Skins can now be rotated at random each time the program is started. "I think we've really tried to concentrate on giving users a complete Web experience by adding things like instant messaging and chat and community features clubs we offer with Lycos," says Mr. Co-hen, NeoPlanet's chairman. "Those make the Web easier." Deals with movie and other entertainment companies have led to the creation of themes such as The Flintstones, PokÃ©mon and Austin Powers. The Nutty Professor, Rocky and Bullwinkle and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are in the works. A 25th anniversary Jaws theme - complete with ominous duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh sound track - is also on the way.
Mr. Cohen and NeoPlanet are also developing thematic browsers that are released on DVD movie disks. A copy of NeoPlanet is recorded on a DVD. That program can be transferred to a computer to install the browser, just like other programs are installed from CDs. Users need a DVD drive on their PCs to access it. This is a promotional extra that comes on the DVD. It has nothing to do with viewing the movie itself.
In another venue, some film companies have begun releasing NeoPlanet browser themes on Web sites opened in advance of a movie's release.
Allowing third parties to craft their own NeoPla-net layouts and channel bars is a way for the company to keep its hand in the big browser game.
Mr. Cohen says he can't predict what will happen next. "You're going to see more activity," he predicts. "I think that's inevitable."
Opera Beta 4.0
Systems: Windows 3.X/95/98/NT Cost: Free 30-day trial; register for $35 Download: 1.4MB Although it lacks some features that many users have come to expect, such as full-featured e-mail, Opera is the undisputed King of Speed.
This lean HTML machine easily beat all comers in a recent page-rendering face-off conducted by Cnet www.cnet.com/internet/0-3773-7-1434803.html?st.cn.3773-7-1434800.txt.3773-7-1434803 Well, it beat everything but Lynx, a text-only browser that doesn't even attempt to display Web graphics.
The creators of Opera - Norwegian telecommunications workers who started this project in 1992 - claim they have about 2 million users worldwide. Most of those users have downloaded the free 30-day trial program, then sent in $35 for a fully licensed version, the company says.
Beside Opera's blazing speed, its fans consistently praise its multipaning feature. With it, numerous Web sessions can be opened in the same window, then cascaded or tiled. Each pane can have its own properties so users can simultaneously scroll a news site in text-only mode while viewing other sites with full graphics.
Most popular plug-ins are also supported. Versions for the Mac, OS/2 and Amiga platforms are promised soon.
Systems: Macintosh System 7.5 or newer Cost: Free for test version; $29 for full-featured, final release Download size: 1MB
Macintosh users often feel left out of the alternative Web browser scene. Traditionally, few options have existed for their systems beyond Internet Explorer and Netscape.
Enter iCab, an eccentric little browser of German extraction. It's not free, but millions of Mac users have warmed to its funky taxicab logo and its strange motto: "Taxi fur den Mac!" (Taxi for the Mac!) Joshua Allen, a respected developer at Webmonkey, hotwired.lycos.com/webmonkey/99/24/index2a.html?tw=browsers, is one of the new faithful. "There is now an English translation and some clever ways to circumvent the cuteness, and what you're left with is a lean, powerful browser that - get this - actually works," Mr. Allen says.
So many Mac users have such an aversion to Microsoft that the use of anything other than IE seems comforting. "I feel cheap and slutty every time I boot [IE] up," says Mr. Allen. "And I'm convinced it's sending its diseased tendrils to every nook and cranny of my machine's tender underbelly." Colors and feel can be customized, and the annoying iCab Internet Taxi can be wiped from the interface and replaced with more Mac-type doohickeys.
A commercial version of iCab will be available later this year for about $30. A free "lite" release will also be brought to market, the company says. "Will iCab use this shrewd setup to topple the big kahunas?" asks Mr. Allen. "Unlikely. But I think there are enough people out there who are tired of Microsoft and Netscape's shenanigans. They just want an elegant piece of software that does what it's supposed to. And hopefully those people will be able to keep iCab - and Opera - in the black."
Systems: Windows 95/98/NT Cost: Free Download: 2.94MB It was once the rage of the Internet world. Today, it languishes unattended and unsupported by any organization.
But although it was swept over by Netscape and Internet Explorer, Mosaic maintains a loyal, nostalgic following.
This was the original browser used in the infancy of the graphical Internet. All the other browsers are descendants.
But time has passed it by, and there are sticky problems displaying the Web's newfangled graphics because it hasn't been regularly updated.
Mosaic is dreadfully sluggish. Cnet's tests ranked it near the bottom in performance.
Nifty features include a Collaboration option that allows group discussions through TCP/IP, making it easy to chat, exchange links or drag and drop files to friends.
The AutoSurf option lets you download pages for off-line viewing, and Mosaic can also build you site maps of spots you visit regularly.
Systems: Windows 95/98/NT, Linux and other platforms.
Cost: Free Download: 3.43MB Back when Mr. Berners-Lee brought his vision of the World Wide Web into reality, his ideas for the medium didn't have much to do with e-commerce or glossy interfaces. The inventor of the World Wide Web and director of its ruling body, the World Wide Web Consortium, was smitten with the idea that people could instantly collaborate on documents and projects across the globe.
Amaya, the browser that Mr. Berners-Lee is creating, harkens to the philosophy that the Web does collaboration best.
Modern browsers only allow you to look at pages after they've been authored and pushed onto a Web server in final form. Amaya allows reading and editing at the same time in a single program.
More than one person can work on a document simultaneously. Simply pressing Ctrl-S sends changes directly to the document for instant viewing by the group.
It won't be your everyday browser. Amaya doesn't have the flexibility of Netscape or Internet Explorer. But for collaborative Web authoring and similar tasks, Amaya makes things much easier than products such as Microsoft's Office 2000.
Systems: Windows 95/98/NT, Sun Solaris 2.5 Cost: Free Download: 4.99MB A 100 percent Pure Java product from Sun Microsystems, HotJava is a lightweight Web browser that allows users to freely customize the interface. It is built on Sun's hope that a single architecture could be designed to run on all operating system platforms. The result, unfortunately, is a product that is still clunky and slow-running. Scrolling through long Web pages, for example, takes an eternity.
Systems: The Win32 version works with Windows 95/98/NT, Macintosh, BeOS, Unix and numerous other platforms.
Cost: Free Download: 6.59KB Minimalism hits a new low with this text-only dinosaur. Lynx runs in a black-and-white terminal window and doesn't support any graphics. Used best with a standard dial-up modem, Lynx simply shows you the links and written words on a Web page. It's extremely fast, but it won't display much of the Net's new content.
Systems: Windows, Macintosh, Linux Cost: Free Download: 2.96MB Mozilla represents what remains of former browser king Netscape's efforts to create an open-source browser platform. Expect installation problems and a spare interface. Only those who like to tinker will enjoy this product. Mozilla uses the rendering engine code-named Gecko, a package of code for which many developers hold much hope. Gecko is also the foundation of Netscape 6 Preview Release 1 www.netscape.com/download/previewrelease.html?cp=hom04n3 which is also in its primitive stages of development. Netscape 6 is being designed for the so-called next generation of Internet access appliances, such as Web pads and TV set-top boxes. It is small, about 5.5MB, and customizable with themes that alter the appearance and feel of the browser window.
Open-source programmers are still struggling to iron out problems with this architecture. Several recently released versions of Mozilla and Netscape 6 balk at displaying basic features, such as menus.
Since Netscape's browser company was acquired by America Online, the future for this project looks hazy. AOL is committed to using Internet Explorer as its browser base, which doesn't bode well for either Netscape or Mozilla.
But there are enough open-sourcers still working hard on Gecko. Web surfers should keep an eye on this product and its entertaining efforts.
Systems: Windows 95/98/NT/2000 with Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 or 5.0 Cost: $19.95 Download: 1.28MB This is a bland little Internet Explorer overlay program that operates a lot like NeoPlanet. The key feature attracting a small coterie of users is the tabbed interface that keeps track of recently viewed Web sites. As you surf from place to place, the sites are stored as histories on tabs along the bottom of the browser window. Moving back and forth is as easy as clicking on a tab.
Staff writer Doug Bedell can be contacted by writing firstname.lastname@example.org
HOW TO FIND ALTERNATIVE BROWSERS
Evolt (browsers.evolt.org): A compendium of more than 80 off-brand browsers, tested and untested Yahoo (dir.yahoo.com/ Computers_and_Internet/Software/ Internet/World_Wide_Web/Browsers): Yahoo's sparse but useful listings Browserwatch (browserwatch.internet.com) The old reliable source, but not as current as it was in the browser wars days.