Netscape is the company that breaks the rules. You can't grow so quickly. You can't take on Microsoft. A small company can't become a corporate standard. But none of this has been a real problem for Netscape until recently. Now, as Microsoft's battle machine makes real inroads into Netscape's market share, it seems the rules weren't so much broken as bent. The Communicator suite, currently in beta, is Netscape's attempt to broaden the product base and give it stability. Communicator comes in two versions - standard and professional - the latter including auto-administration, calendaring and IBM 3270 terminal emulation.
Communicator programs have a broadly consistent look and feel, using a standard menu to invoke the other components. The key applications Navigator and Messenger have adopted active toolbars, finally making the Netscape user interface as attractive as the action icon. The other programs have a more conventional toolbar, but the whole user interface is well thought through. I particularly liked the preferences setting sheets, not usually a high priority despite being one of the most confusing aspects of a program.
Help, too, has been given an overhaul. Microsoft makes no secret of the fact that the Windows mail engine is going to be replaced by HTML. It's good news for developers who have fought for years with the baleful help compiler. Netscape has pre-empted Microsoft by providing HTML help. That's good for corporate support teams, who can tailor the contents to suit their requirements. As it stands, the help system is without a search facility, but I hope this will be remedied.
Despite Netscape's broadening product base, the core of Communicator is Navigator. After all, Netscape claims that with 45 million users, Navigator is the world's most popular application. Navigator can now take on Internet Explorer comfortably. Active toolbars, task bar and auto-installation of plug-ins match equivalent IE facilities. Beyond that, multi-user profiles enable different individuals to get Navigator working their way, while Netscape has relented and provided OLE support, ensuring better interaction with other Windows applications. Dinky tabs on the toolbars let you hide and recover them easily, and addresses can be dragged onto the bookmarks button to be filed in the selected folder automatically.
There are juicy new features for the presentation of web documents, too.
Absolute positioning means no more fiddling with tables to fix the position of a picture, while layers make it possible to overlap images and text as if using a drawing package. Add downloadable fonts and style sheets (playing the field by supporting two types under consideration by W3C) and the Navigator 4 user will be exposed to a whole new generation of sexy web sites.
The mail component, Messenger, has the same strong look as Navigator.
With full HTML support it produces very rich mail. Navigator's default background gives you mail messages in Netscape's traditional grey, but it's easy to change. Actually, not as easy as it should be - Messenger doesn't use the new preference sheets, and can't access the Communicator preferences dialog where background colours are set. Handling mail is made easier with quick sorting, message threading and an optional split-pane combining a message and the in-box. A filter mechanism enables simple rules of the "if it's from Fred file it in Rubbish" type. IMAP4 support gives mobile users useful facilities like synchronisation of server and local folders and on-line viewing of headers to decide what to download, while secure messaging is provided with S/MIME and authenticated SMTP and directory management via the LDAP protocol. There's a personal address book available to all Communicator components, supporting the trendy vCard electronic business card format. Sadly, though, there's no consideration of other local address books. For instance there is no interface to PIMs.
Collabra is sold as groupware, but the rest of the world would call it a bulletin board client. It combines views onto the mail folders and any subscribed local discussion groups and Internet newsgroups. The beta version I had fell over every time I tried to open a newsgroup, but in principle this is a neat bulletin board browser and manager. I particularly liked the way Collabra can use the same rules functionality as Messenger to monitor messages and can filter postings out of various groups into a single virtual discussion.
A recent addition is Netcaster, the Netscape equivalent of the webcasting features of Microsoft's IE 4. The idea of such push technology is two-fold. A user can maintain an up-to-date view on a site without the delays of connecting across the Internet, and a site can initiate a push of specific information, tailored to the user's requirements. There's a lot of flak flying between Netscape and Microsoft over whose approach is best. Until both products are out of beta, it is difficult to be definitive. If you ignore the almost certainly irrelevant smoke-screens over whose method of specifying just what to push is more standard, Netscape's key differentiator is the Webtop option. This provides a full screen view onto a web site, with no screen furniture whatsoever. Clicking a link jumps to that link, still in the Webtop view, maintaining a kiosk-like interface, ideal for some pure information applications.
AutoAdmin enables Navigator to query a central site on startup. It pulls down specific preferences, but can also trigger the download of software such as new Netscape versions or additional components. It's a useful attempt to overcome the perennial support problem, the only doubt being that this problem spans all of the software on a PC. There remains also the dark horse of Netcaster.
Keeping diaries up to date and scheduling meetings is one of the toughest problems to crack on the corporate network. Lotus and Microsoft are getting pretty good at this, but it has taken them a long time. Netscape makes a clean sweep with Calendar. It has kept things simple by restricting Calendar to its own format, but the range of facilities that are supported is good. It's too early to be certain how effective the calendaring will be in practice on a large installed base, but all I can say is that experience shows that everyone underestimates the complexity of making it work. The meetings in-tray is a neat feature: a place where all meetings proposals, refusals and acceptances sit, and coverage of the standard electronic diary features is good. There's even a basic task list, though a comprehensive PIM it certainly is not.
Among the lesser applications, Composer is a reasonable, basic web page editor (no support for Navigator's fancy new features, though) and Conference does a fair job of making Internet conferencing painless. IBM Host On-Demand adds 3270 emulation to the suite. This Java-based emulator can be incorporated into a web page. If you have the infrastructure, Host On-Demand should take some of the pain out of keeping access to the mainframe alive, but you do need a TCP/IP 3270 server.
Communicator is a beguiling bundle. It has the power of Navigator combined with an excellent user interface, plus a readily accessible suite of associated applications. It's not plain sailing, though. Microsoft may be coy about just how Internet Explorer will integrate with Windows, but it's hard not to see the unified product as a threat, especially as IE is already catching up on numbers. Worse still, there are signs that Netscape doesn't entirely understand the corporate market. There's a "do everything our way" assumption.
Messenger is a great mail client, but if this is a corporate solution, where's the VIM/MAPI support for the existing base? Okay, a MAPI generated mail send can use Communicator, but there's nothing to feed Communicator into MAPI. There's a calendar migration utility for PROFS, but no recognition that big companies will have hybrid mail systems for years to come. Of course you could stick with different clients for different servers, but that undermines the Netscape "all you need" philosophy. Similarly, like it or not, fax is not dead. We've just got used to clients that transparently handle mail and fax - where's that facility?
To an extent this is nit-picking, but if Communicator is to save Netscape by becoming the all-singing, all-dancing communications package as a contrast to Microsoft's attempts to merge Internet Explorer into the all-embracing information package, it needs to go beyond its roots.
PRODUCT AND CONTACT DETAILS
UK prices are yet to be established, but US standard edition is $59.
Netscape web site: home. netscape.com. Available beginning of June.
It's not plain sailing
- Good interface
- Strong links
- State-of-the-art HTML
- Impressive Netcaster push technology
- Too self-centred
- Pricing remains an issue.
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