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The Gecko Strikes Back

Mon, 03/31/2003 - 7:00pm
John R. Joyce Ph.D.

The Gecko Strikes Back

A look at Netscape 7.02 and Mozilla 1.2.1

John Joyce, Ph.D.

If you were to judge, based solely on the Web browser installed by default on new PCs, you would likely conclude that the only Web browser currently available was Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Those who have bothered to perform a Web search would be more than happy to tell you how wrong you are. Unfortunately, depending on who you ask, you are likely to find yourself in the middle of holy war. Truth is, there are a number of excellent browsers available, depending on your needs.

Two of the more popular ones are maternal twins based on the Gecko layout engine, originally developed by Netscape. The first is currently Netscape 7.02, from Netscape, now a subsidiary of AOL. The other is Mozilla 1.2.1, from Mozilla.org. Versions are available for Windows, Linux, MacOS 8-9, MacOS X, and others. Mozilla also is working on a Mac version incorporating a native Cocoa front end called Chimera. All of these versions can be downloaded for no charge over the Internet. Netscape can be obtained from channels.netscape.com/ns/browsers/download.jsp and Mozilla from mozilla.org.

Since these two programs are based on the same layout engine, their functionality is very similar, though not identical. It is these differences that must be carefully considered when determining which, if either, browser to use. Both incorporate e-mail functionality and newsgroup viewing, as well as enhanced Web browsing. One of these enhancements is 'tabbed browsing.' Instead of opening new instances of the program to allow multiple pages to be open at once, you can create multiple tabs within one instance. By clicking on the tab, you can easily switch back and forth between the page views. At the risk of oversimplifying, the primary difference is that Netscape was intended to be an overall encompassing commercial package, particularly to provide support for AOL. Mozilla appears targeted toward users focused more on Web browsing and installs fewer uninvited components.

The practical effect is that Netscape includes a number of plug-ins not needed for Web browsing. For example, its basic install includes Netscape Radio, with functionality provided by Spinner (spinner.com). Because of AOL's ownership, it also comes with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Since Mozilla.org does not have the 'benefit' of AOL ownership, it is bundled with ChatZilla, an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) client, instead.

Since the production code was developed independently, there are also feature variations based on when, or if, the code modules were completed. An example of this is that Netscape 7 includes a spell checker in its e-mail system, Mozilla does not (although one is under development).

There are also features missing for more political reasons. An example of this is pop-up ad blocking. This is a very popular feature in Mozilla, though it has to be manually activated under the Preferences Advanced Scripts and Plugins screen, which is missing from Netscape. This is not a surprising situation, as AOL makes a significant fraction of their income from pop-up ad sales.

An advantage of these applications being based on the same Open Source code, is that we don't have to decide which supported features are most critical to us. Instead, we can start with whichever implementation we prefer and install additional desired plugins. If you install Netscape, you can download the ad blocker from ufaq.org/files/adblocker.xpi. If you install Mozilla, you can download the Netscape spell checker from ftp://ftp.netscape.com/pub/netscape7/english/7.0/windows/win32/ewc9e/spellchk.xpi. Two good sources of detailed instructions for installing these tools are HexFF Hacks (hexff.com/hacks.html) and eWeek (eweek.com/print_article/0,3668,a=32094,00.asp).

Both Gecko-based browsers correct several display problems that plagued earlier versions of Netscape. I experienced no major problems using them. However, I'm sure we'll see instances of other browser vendors claiming that neither renders certain Web pages properly. While there may indeed be variations between browsers, based on how the programmers interpreted the standards, it might be wise to remember that, in the world of Internet magic, things are not always as they seem. In a recent issue (zdnet.com.com/2102-1104-984632.html), ZDNet News covered a story where the Opera management staff demonstrated how some of Microsoft's Web sites fed the Opera browser a modified style sheet to make it appear that the Opera browser was rendering the Web page incorrectly. Since the browser identifies itself to the Web server, it would be very easy to extend this 'service' to other browsers.

Don't feel constrained to use Internet Explorer simply because it came with your system. If it does what you need, great! But remember, not everyone works the same way, so it would be unreasonable to expect one tool to fill everyone's needs.

Happy surfing!

John Joyce is the LIMS manager for the state of Virginia's Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services. He may be contacted at editor@scimag.com.

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