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AOL revives Netscape browser

The Netscape web browser, which had been written off by industry observers last year, is about to enjoy a new lease of life following America Online's decision to release an update as early as next month.

The update appears to be part of a broader effort by AOL to revitalise the Netscape brand it acquired in a $4.2bn deal in 1998. AOL is also testing a new Netscape Desktop Navigator product and launched the low-cost Netscape Internet service in January.

The update will replace version 7.1, which was released in mid-2003. It will be based on version 1.7 of Mozilla, an upcoming release of the Mozilla internet application suite, according to a source familiar with the product plans.

Analysts had said that the death knell was sounding for the Netscape browser after AOL last year laid off Netscape software developers and ended development work on the Mozilla browser technology.

Development work was taken over by the Mozilla open-source project, which was originally started in early 1998 by Netscape Communications and continued when AOL acquired Netscape later that year. Last year, the people behind Mozilla created a foundation, largely funded by a $2m pledge from AOL, to build, support and promote Mozilla products.

AOL has also started beta testing a new product called the Netscape Desktop Navigator that offers access to localised web content - based on the user's zip or postal code - through a round user interface that resembles a coaster. The beta version of the Netscape Desktop Navigator is available for download at http://navigator-stage.netscape.com/

The center of the coaster contains an internet search bar, news headlines and weather, while the edges are buttons for pulling up various kinds of information from the web, including movie and TV times, phone books, maps, personals and shopping.

Information shown in the Netscape Desktop Navigator is provided by AOL and partners such as InfoSpace. The information first appears in a screen that folds down over the coaster, but another click will open the user's default Wwb browser, which could be Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

The updated browser bundle and the Desktop Navigator are likely be offered as a bundle, said Richard Doherty, research director at The Envisioneering Group. Doherty said he first heard that an update to the Netscape browser is in the works from former AOL employees.

Netscape was the most popular browser in the early years of the web, although its market share started crumbling when Microsoft  introduced Internet Explorer in the mid-1990s. The acquisition of Netscape by Microsoft rival AOL and a lengthy antitrust trial could not change the browser's fortune.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer held 96% of the browser market in March 2004, leaving just 4% to be divided between Netscape, Apple Computer's Safari and other browsers including Opera and Mozilla, according to web tracking company WebSideStory.

Joris Evers writes for IDG News Service


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