It’s dangerous to go alone

November 17, 2000

Netscape 6, the first commercial product based on Mozilla, has been released. (Notice that it’s just “Netscape 6”, no “Navigator” or “Communicator”. I guess Netscape has bowed to common usage.) I’ve been casually following the progress of the Mozilla project, so I had a pretty good idea of what was in store for this new version. As expected, it fixes just about everything that drove me away from Netscape Navigator 4. Pages don’t reload when you resize windows, the Macintosh version finally has a persistent history, and the CSS engine doesn’t get things horribly wrong. In fact, Netscape 6 now has better support for standards than Internet Explorer 5 on Windows and is comparable to (if not better than) IE5 on the Macintosh.

Lots of people are reporting horror stories about buggy installation, crashing, and so forth. My experience has been pretty smooth so far. I’m a little annoyed by Netscape’s persistent attempts to sign me up for Netcenter, but I managed to opt out successfully. (Be careful to read the dialog boxes. After you tell it you don’t want to sign up, the installer tells you that signing up is a great, wonderful thing. You need to hit “Cancel” at that point to halt the sign-up process.)

I’ve even found some bugs in my style sheet thanks to the more-accurate rendering engine. I’d been using the :hover pseudo-class to make the links chance appearance when the mouse is over them, but in CSS2 :hover apparently applies to anything, not just links. This was making the text on several of my pages jump around and change colors seemingly at random when the mouse moved—but only on pages declared as HTML 4.0 Strict. I got around this by using :link:hover and :visited:hover, which restricts the effect to links. (Another possibility was a:hover, but that might get applied to anchors as well as links, which would be confusing.)

Netscape 6 also seems to have some trouble with fixed background images, but last I heard they weren’t claiming to have full CSS2 support, so I’m not sure it’s a fair flaw to point out.

Of course, there’s more to a browser than the way it renders pages. (Otherwise, I wouldn’t be using iCab most of the time.) Like Mozilla, Netscape 6 generates its interface based on XML descriptions, a method I’ve already complained about. (This might mean that someone could design an iCab-like site navigation toolbar for it, but I haven’t seen any way to do so.) The customizable sidebar is a neat idea, a fine improvement on IE5’s explorer bar.

However, it also wastes screen space on built-in bookmarks that I’m not sure you can customize. In the open-source tradition, it stores user preferences in fifty million little text files scattered through at two complex directory trees. It really wants you to sign up for Netcenter.

That wouldn’t be enough to prevent me from switching browsers, but there’s one other thing I’ve discovered since I abandoned Netscape 4 for Internet Explorer: I like the way IE handles auto-completion of URLs, especially in the Macintosh version.

That’s probably grounds for hanging in some circles, so let me explain. I’m pretty frugal with bookmarks, but even I gradually collect dozens or hundreds of the suckers. The problem is that organizing bookmarks is a pain. One is faced with either a deeply-nested, difficult-to-maintain hierarchy or long, hard-to-browse lists. What auto-complete offers is a way to search the bookmarks and history lists. IE5/Mac provides a list of possible matches in a drop-down box with both the page title and the URL listed. The typed text can match the title or the URL, and the browser will add a “http://www.” when appropriate. That means I can get to a great many sites by typing as few as four characters. This is faster than going through the menus.

As much as I advocate graphical user interfaces, one mustn’t fall into the trap of assuming the best way to do something is through menus or pretty buttons. Searching through large masses of text is something best handled by typing.

Netscape 6 is a fine browser and a great improvement over its predecessors. If word from the development community is accurate, Mozilla 1.0 will be even better. Ultimately, however, the choice of browsers comes down to personal preference. Choose wisely.