Users losing faith in Netscape browser

Uncertainty over the future development of Netscape Communications's Navigator browser is causing concern among corporate users -- and prompting some to switch to Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

More than 15 months ago, Netscape released its Navigator source code for the developer community at large to improve and innovate.

But there's still no shipping version of Navigator 5.0.

A company spokeswoman this week would say only that the beta version -- featuring a faster browser engine and up-to-date standards support -- will be available by year's end.

"I couldn't even conceive of going to my vice president and advocating Netscape's browser now because of the confusion in the product development," said Barry Starrfield, webmaster at Martin Marietta Materials in North Carolina.

Martin Marietta switched to Internet Explorer about seven months ago. "Frankly, I don't know if they're going to be able to deliver a stable browser in any reasonable period of time," Starrfield said.

The North Carolina company isn't alone.

A browser study in May by Zona Research showed that 62 per cent of 209 information technology professionals surveyed, whose companies have corporate browser standards, chose Internet Explorer.

A key motivating factor is the desire for a uniform Microsoft desktop, observers said.

"We were frankly a little uncomfortable with the level of support we were getting from Netscape, and we didn't feel they were advancing the technology as quickly as Microsoft. It proved to be true," said Bob Lee, vice president of intranet and distributed technology at San Francisco-based Charles Schwab & Co, which made the decision to swap Navigator for Internet Explorer late last year.

Once the browsers became comparable feature-wise in their respective 3.x versions, the big issue for many companies was determining which is faster and supports more Web standards. Many now believe that's Internet Explorer 5.0.

Navigator 5.0 promises updated Java technology and more complete support for key standards -- such as Extensible Markup Language and Cascading Style Sheets -- than Microsoft's current browser, according to Netscape.

But Netscape hasn't given corporations any clear direction about just when that browser will ship, due in part to the variety of problems that have dogged its open-source effort. That includes a failure to attract a solid community of developers outside Netscape to work on it.

Netscape's Mitchell Baker, who oversees, said the project is now going well and the situation has improved.