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The Return of Netscape Navigator: Does the World Need Another Browser?

Holy nostalgia! Isn’t it strange how things sometimes go full circle? Take Netscape Navigator, the browser that I adopted and used on my Mac until Microsoft’s Internet Explorer came along and blew it away. That’s the price the erstwhile Netscape company paid for developing fat and buggy software and allowing a competitor to pull the rug from under them.

Of course, Internet Explorer is now also fat and buggy, and ridden with security leaks, so Microsoft deserves to lose some market share. No, make that a lot of market share.

Indeed, when the folks at Mozilla developed yet another alternative browser, Firefox, you had to wonder if they were serious. After all, their flagship products had already been trounced, beaten, and turned into forgotten also-rans.

This isn’t to say that Mozilla had bad products. Although Netscape was no longer being produced on the Mac platform, the fully-featured Mozilla browser suite — now reincarnated as SeaMonkey — had lots of fans among the power user set. But armed with lots of good write-ups, Firefox did what no browser had done before, and that was to steal lots and lots of users from Internet Explorer.

It got to a point where Microsoft finally woke up and saw the threat looming before them, and decided to release Internet Explorer 7 to Windows XP users, rather than wait for its intended arrival in Vista. In fact, it was presented as part of their standard update packages, so they could be sure that most Windows users would have a copy before long.

True, Internet Explorer 7 is a better browser when compared to its predecessor. It is indeed somewhat more attuned with Internet standards, and it certainly has more of the state-of-the-art features, such as tabs and phishing protection. But it remains a bloated monstrosity and it wasn’t enough to stem the tide towards Firefox, Apple’s Safari and other alternatives.

So Firefox would seem to be quite enough. But evidently not to Mozilla. You see, my friends, Netscape Navigator is back! This time, the new versions are being made available simultaneously on the Mac, Windows and Linux platforms. Based on the version 9.0b1 that I examined, it’s basically Firefox with friendlier, funky icons and some socially-oriented features that may appeal to the younger members of our audience.

The new features include the Link Pad, which opens in the sidebar and allows you to insert links to sites that you might want to visit again, but are not yet “qualified” to reside among your bookmarks. The sidebar can also be used for a News Tracker, so you can keep track of the latest celebrity gossip — such as how Paris Hilton is faring behind bars — or important events in the world with just a casual glance.

Other niceties include Resizeable Textarea, which allows you to drag the bottom right corners of a text field and get more space to add information. Now I don’t have to expand our Comments window — at least for Navigator users. Well, maybe, because I couldn’t make it work.

For the social set, there’s a Friends’ Activity sidebar, to help you see what your pals are up to, along with notification in case you receive email from a Netscape account.

Other than these and similar enhancements, the Navigator experience is Firefox through and through, and, based on this early release version, pretty quick to perform its tasks, after some slowness during first launch.

Even your favorite Firefox add-ons should run just fine, same as they do on Firefox 2. I’m not all that big on such things, but I do use Foxmarks Bookmark Synchronizer, so I can keep my bookmarks in tune between my desktop and note-book Macs. Indeed, this particular module works just fine.

Of course the ultimate question is whether the arrival of a rebadged Firefox will have any impact on the market. Does the brand name even have traction anymore? I honestly don’t know, but it’s certainly a curiosity. Indeed, the more browsers the folks at Mozilla put out there, the more options Windows users have to abandon Internet Explorer.

And the fact that it is cross-platform all over again is just the icing on the cake. So maybe everything old is indeed new again.