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One Fat Gecko: Netscape 6

A Dissenting View of Gecko

  • June 20, 2000
  • By Andrew Starling

Originally from the Web Developer's Journal.

It's been out on release for a few months, and now all the fuss has died down (what fuss was that, then?) it's time to take a long hard look at the monster Netscape has saddled us with.

I've read a couple of decent reviews and a few real slammers, but most reviewers manage to set a neutral tone. I guess this is down to human politeness. When somebody is very ill, we try to avoid criticizing them.

Well, sorry about this, but I'm about to be rude.

Netscape 6 is based on the open-source Mozilla browser, which is being assembled through a cooperative project, rather like the Linux operating system. There are very few differences between Netscape 6 and Mozilla's Gecko M16, with the obvious exception that Gecko works at about twice the speed.

Anything that's based on an insect-eating lizard should naturally contain plenty of bugs, and Netscape 6 doesn't disappoint. Being polite, we gracefully say, "But this is a preview version--it's allowed to have bugs." Maybe that's true, but not this many. Its font handling is poor, it can't keep track of its own URL history, it gave my CPU palpitations, and of course it's liable to crash. It rejects good Java, and as for its DHTML handling - well, I haven't quite figured that one out yet. It's supposed to be close to a standard version of the DOM (Document Object Model), and I'm sure it is, but whatever it's doing it fails to work with a large proportion of JavaScript already on the Web, and that's bad news.

If an unknown company came up with a browser like this and released it as a preview version with so many faults, they'd be laughed off the planet. The only reason Netscape can get away with it is because they're big, they have a great history, and most people don't like Microsoft.

They won't like Netscape soon. This version 6 browser is peppered with all kinds of add-ons, second-guessing and other marketing crap that Microsoft has become famous for. Around half the buttons on the screen take you to places that Netscape would like you to go (at netscape.com) rather than adding anything useful to the browser itself. It's highly likely you won't use any of them.

It's clearly AOL influenced. "Where do we want you to go today?" This heavy commercialization has already happened to AOL's other brand, Compuserve, and now we're seeing the same process at work with Netscape.

Fond Memories

I'm one of those Net old-timers with fond memories of Compuserve. They introduced me to the Net and the wonderful Compuserve forums helped me install my own TCP interpreters and similar nonsense that we all take for granted these days. But now I won't let Compuserve dial-up software near my computer. The network component it automatically installs is too brutal. Some of my other ISP accounts can't work beneath it, and I don't find that acceptable.

And the sad thing is, I've finished with Netscape too. I've used Netscape browsers since version 1 and stayed with them until around a year ago, when IE5 came along and was so much faster that (along with the vast majority of people on the Net) I shifted over to it. I waited for Netscape 5, waited hopefully, waited a bit too long, and now here's N6 and with great regret I see the final battle has been lost and the war is over.

This is a browser destined to wear an AOL label--assuming that most of the bugs can be removed, it can interpret Java properly, and it speeds up, otherwise it goes directly to the scrap heap. If the final version reaches an acceptable standard, it could easily replace the current Explorer-based AOL browser-- it has that look and feel about it--and this might well become its majority market. I'm not even sure that its natural audience of anti-Microsoft diehards will take to it. I think they'll stay with Navigator 4.5 or 4.7 or devour a Gecko by preference. N6 is obviously commercial, and they're not going to like that.

It's also supposed to have a small footprint, but on my machine the typical install came out at 15 Mb, excluding disk cache (the preview version doesn't have one). Maybe I'm missing something here, or maybe my computer is a special case, but that's more than my IE5, at 10 Mb, and more than my Communicator 4.5 at 12 Mb. What kind of small are we talking about here? Maybe just a marketing-blurb small?

And it's slow. It's component based and pedestrian compared to IE5. Though if Gecko M16 is anything to go by, the final release could be quite a bit faster.

Clearly I'm not impressed, but if I can manage to stop whining and moaning for a moment, what are the practical implications of all this, especially for Web developers? I'm going to assume that the Java handling is fixed before final release. Otherwise this browser's a stuffed reptile. The JavaScript and DOM regimes I'm less confident about. That's a bad blow for DHTML. If Netscape 6 gets just 15% of the browser market, lots of DHTML will need to be rewritten so it works in three browser types--Microsoft, old Netscape, and new Netscape. A lot of people won't bother. DHTML will lose popularity. That's a shame, but I guess it's survivable.

The real issue is what proportion of the browser market it gets. If it's less than 10%--and that's a possibility--it will be marginalized and ignored by developers. Nobody will care if pages comes out a little mangled on N6, any more than they care whether they look perfect on AOL or Opera. As long as they show, look acceptable and can be navigated, that's close enough.

I think that's likely to be the case. Developers who've been trying to keep Netscape in the game will stop worrying about it. So in a way, Netscape 6 will make our lives simpler. Congratulations! It's a failure! We can forget all about it now.

Of course there's always a chance that all the faults will be fixed before the final release comes along, and we'll get the slim, speedy, robust browser we've all been dreaming of. But then again, I suspect the word "dreaming" says it all.

And maybe I shouldn't push the reptilian gecko analogy any further, but go on, indulge me one last time.

If you live in a tropical country where there are lots of geckos, at first they seem mightily impressive, clinging to walls and ceilings with apparent ease. But if you live there long enough, you eventually find they sometimes get it wrong. They fall off, land with a loud thud, and for a few stunned seconds sit on the ground with their heads held high as if to say "Not my fault, guv'. Dodgy wall." Then scuttle off into darkness and obscurity.

It looks like Netscape has found a dodgy wall.

Andrew Starling is the managing editor of the Web Developer's Journal.

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