Final Mozilla browser beta readies attack
By Scarlet Pruitt
(IDG) -- While the war between heavyweight Web browsers like Netscape Communication's Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) continues to fester, the final version of Mozilla, an open source program that users say could out-trump both big-brand browsers, is set to make its debut.
Although Mozilla version 1.0 won't be released until late in the third quarter of this year, according to Mozilla.org spokeswoman Mitchell Baker, the introduction earlier this month of the beta version, dubbed Mozilla 1.0 Release Candidate 1 (RC1), has set the user chat groups ablaze with comments on the browser's new and improved features and recently squashed bugs.
Mozilla has been four years in the making, as Netscape initially released the source code for the project in early 1998. The browser is being developed by the Mozilla.org open-source community and is a cross-platform product, boasting support for Windows, Linux and Macintosh 8, 9 and X operating systems (OSs).
Widespread testing of the browser is under way in anticipation of its final release, as over 200,000 users have downloaded the latest version of Mozilla from the Mozilla.org, Baker said. Depending on the feedback users give, the open source group will then decide whether it needs to release a Release Candidate 2.0 or not before unveiling the final 1.0 browser.
"What we have is 95 percent there and what we are doing at the moment is actually polishing," Baker said.
Beyond the browser's cross-platform operability and bargain basement price tag -- it's free -- topping the list of user praise for Mozilla is its tabbed browsing feature.
"Tabbed browsing is the bee's knees!" Mozilla user Timothy Lord wrote in an e-mail interview. Lord, an editor for the open source news Web site Slashdot.com has been using Mozilla as his primary browser for over two years, on the Windows, Linux and Mac OS 9.1 platforms.
This feature allows users to view multiple Web pages without opening a new browser window each time. When users click on a Web page link, Mozilla does not go straight to the site, but instead creates a tab or button on the edge of the browser. This leaves the current Web page alone, while allowing the hyperlinked page to load as a tab that can be clicked on when the user chooses to view it.
According to Lord, although tabbed browsing has been a feature in previous prerelease versions of Mozilla, it has come into its own in RC1, allowing users to save multiple open tabs as a single bookmark.
"In my work, I need several Web pages open at once, and this is the feature I've been hankering for. I can select a single bookmark to bring up the important pages I would otherwise open serially, and they all order at the same time, in the order I want them to," Lord wrote.
Tabbed browsing is not unique to Mozilla, but the dominant commercial browsers have yet to adopt it.
"That Internet Explorer does not have tabs is puzzling to me because users who try them seem to like them a lot," Lord wrote.
Another key Mozilla selling point is its ability to let users control their browsing, according to Samuel Marshall, a Web developer in the UK, who said that he has used Mozilla for some time and updates it regularly.
Other features that are garnering Mozilla praise include smooth page loading, economical use of page space and its interoperable chat client, ChatZilla.
ChatZilla is an optional feature, but works well, according to Lord, with a consistent interface across widespread operating systems.
Still, the open source browser is still not perfect, users said, as it experiences occasional crashes and has problems supporting plug-ins such as Macromedia's Flash media player.
Users said that RC1 crashed far less than it did in previous versions, however.
"The biggest problem I used to have with Mozilla was crashes, pure and simple," Lord wrote. "The thing would just lock up and die, (for) no evident reason beyond computer spite."
Marshall said that although he has occasionally reported bugs, he still prefers the browser.
"I'd like Web sites to be designed for ... the Web. Not just for Internet Explorer," he said.
However, the latest version of Internet Explorer, IE 6, is currently dominating the browser market. According to Internet researcher WebSideStory Inc., IE 6 had 30.5 percent of the market share as of the end of March, compared with Netscape's 7 percent. Much of the rest of the market is collared by older versions of IE with a very small percent of users opting to employ open-source browsers.
Although many Mozilla users enjoy the browser's unique features, it is doubtful that the open source software will sweep the market any time soon, according to Jupiter Media Metrix Research Director Michael Gartenberg.
"The browser has taken on the status of mission critical. You're not going to see many enterprises adopt this (Mozilla) when there is such a sense of gravity around IE," said Gartenberg.
"It's doubtful that we will see masses of users who would adopt it ... there's no ownership, no one evangelizing about it, and no one selling it to hardware makers," he added, noting the informal structure of the open source community, which does not seek to sell its products like corporations do.
Even though it's unlikely that Web users will rally en masse for a Mozilla switch, open source browsers may make their mark more subtly, by influencing future versions of browser stalwarts such as Navigator and IE, Gartenberg said.
In fact, America Online (AOL) announced last March that it was testing new software for the AOL Internet service based on the "Gecko" engine, which is also at the core of Mozilla. AOL is a subsidiary of AOL Time Warner, which owns Netscape. (AOL Time Warner is also the parent company of CNN.com.)
But even if AOL decides to incorporate the technology, it is doubtful that users will notice, according to Gartenberg.
"The AOL browser is sort of invisible, so from a user perspective it really won't matter," Gartenberg said.
Gecko is the piece of code that lays out how content appears on the screen, Baker said, but it has no user interface. Even if AOL adopted Gecko, the company would most likely keep the interface that its users have come to expect, Baker noted.
It remains to be seen if the major browser players eventually incorporate the features Mozilla users are currently clamoring over.
But until then, browser enthusiasts can get all the bells and whistles, for better or for worse, by downloading Mozilla RC1
Scarlet Pruitt is a Boston correspondent for the IDG News Service, an InfoWorld affiliate.
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