Netscape Navigator

The greatest concentration of ex-NCSA Mosaic developers can be found at the Mountain View offices of startup Netscape Communications. Founded by Jim Clark, previously head of Silicon Graphics, and Marc Andreessen, who created the first NCSA Mosaic, Netscape has gone from complete obscurity to being one of the heavy hitters in the world of the Web. The reason? Netscape Navigator, which is what happens when you take talented developers and ask them to write a program they've done once all over again from scratch, avoiding the mistakes they made the first time and rethinking the parts that didn't work well. Netscape Navigator basically owns the Web browser market, if you can call it that since most Web browsers are essentially free, with some estimates giving it as much as 75 percent market share.

Netscape Navigator (generally just called Netscape, thanks to some weaseling around with the name early on, when the company was called Mosaic Communications and the program was called Mosaic Netscape) shines in two specific areas. It's fast, thanks to an innovative way of establishing multiple connections to the server when you retrieve a Web page, and it has, by far, the best hotlist feature (called bookmarks in Netscape's parlance).

Note: HTML, or HyperText Markup Language, is the language in which documents are written for display on the Web.

Actually, there's a third major reason Netscape took the Web by storm. Netscape Communications "extended" the standard HTML 2.0 tags in advance of the forthcoming HTML 3.0 specification, and supported those extensions in Netscape. The result is that people writing in HTML can do things graphically, such as wrap text next to a graphic, that were previously impossible (and still are in other Web browsers). Suddenly, if you wanted to see a page in all its glory, you had to use Netscape. Many people felt that Netscape's jumping of the gun wasn't particularly fair play, and many Web page developers refuse to use Netscape-specific HTML codes until the HTML 3.0 specification is complete (which should be relatively soon -- sometime in mid-1995 is my guess). At that point MacWeb and Mosaic will almost certainly add support for all the additional HTML codes that enable Web page developers to create tables, wrap text around graphics, place graphics in specific spots on the page, and so on.

Installation & Setup

Netscape has the most preferences of any of the Web browsers, but luckily, you need not mess with anything past the Mail and News preferences. From the Options menu, choose Preferences, and then from the pop-up menu in the Preferences dialog, choose Mail and News to see the various settings (see figure 25.5).

Figure 25.5: Netscape Mail and News Preferences.

The settings ought to be familiar to anyone who's configured other Internet programs, things like your SMTP server, your news server, your email address, and so on. More interesting are the preferences for Window and Link Styles, which enables you to not only choose what you want your window to include in terms of navigational buttons, but also lets you pick your link styles. Netscape tracks the links you've followed in the past and displays them in a different color so you can tell where you've been before -- a nice touch.

Although you have minimal control over the fonts Netscape uses, it's nowhere near as customizable as MacWeb or Mosaic. In one respect, I can see why -- with all the new codes coming in HTML 3.0, creating an interface for the user to modify the look of all those tags will be a nightmare. Interestingly, Netscape is the best Web browser of all for supporting Japanese, although I can't say anything more intelligent about that support since I don't know Kanji.

Note: Control over HTML display drives Web publishers from the desktop publishing world nuts, because they want to make sure you see their pages as they intended them to be seen, but that's not a trivial task on the Web. It's a two-edged sword, actually, because many people have bad vision, are color-blind, or otherwise don't like the way some Web publications look, and the control over the fonts and all enables them to make something readable that might not have been readable otherwise.

You might also check out the other items in Netscape's Options menu, because they enable you to hide or show the toolbar, the location field, the directory buttons, FTP information, and images, (should you not want to auto-load images). I prefer a mix of the various buttons and controls Netscape can place at the top of the window, so I usually turn off the directory buttons, but leave the toolbar and location field on. I also leave the toolbar style at text and images because that makes the all-important Back button larger and easier to click.

When you're done messing with the settings, choose Save Options from the Options menu to make sure that Netscape remembers your settings for the next session.

Basic Usage

When push comes to shove, using Netscape is almost exactly like using any other Web browser. They're kind of dull that way. Basically, when you launch Netscape, you see its main window displaying whatever the default home page is (see figure 25.6).

Figure 25.6: Netscape main window.

Although I generally run with the Directory buttons for What's New?, What's Cool?, Handbook, Net Search, Net Directory, and Newsgroups turned off, I think they're handy for new Internet users who may launch Netscape and then ask, "How do I search the Internet?" Well, if you're running Netscape, the simple answer is, "Click the Net Search button." In fact, each of these buttons takes you to another, constantly updated, Web page that Netscape Communications maintains. The Net Search and Net Directory buttons in particular point you to the best search engines and the best directories (of course, the Internet Starter Kit home page that you get with MacWeb also points to those same search engines and directories -- they're not secret).

Netscape does the best job of displaying newsgroups if you, for some reason, decide you want to read news in something other than one of the newsreaders. Netscape uses an outline-like structure to display threads. When you go into an article, Netscape provides a customized header and links as much as possible, such as the name of the newsgroup, the email address of the poster, and so on. Netscape also has some custom graphics at the top and bottom of each article or article list that provide graphical access to the basic functions necessary while reading news (see figure 25.7).

Figure 25.7: Netscape news reading.

One neat feature of reading news in Netscape is that URLs become hot, so you can click them to follow the link without any fuss. If you click a mailto URL or want to reply to a news message, Netscape brings up a pre-addressed window for you to enter your message (see figure 25.8). You also can use the Mail Document command in the File menu at any time to bring up this window, with the URL of the current page already in the body, so you can send it to friends to let them know about the page you are looking at. The Quote Document button inserts the entire document in the body of the message, and the Attach button enables you to attach the document, the HTML code for the document, or another file to your mail.

Figure 25.8: Netscape Send Mail/Post News window.

I'd never bother to read news in Netscape because it's nowhere near as good as NewsWatcher, NewsHopper, or any of the other newsreaders, but I do appreciate the ease of mailing a URL or document to someone. For a while, Netscape put the URL of the current page in the Subject line, so I can still tell who's using the older version by how much mail I get with a URL in the Subject line.

Last, but by no means list, is Netscape's Bookmark List (which is equivalent to the hotlist features in other browsers). Many people just use the Add Bookmark command in the Bookmarks menu to add bookmarks, but that's a mistake. The reason is that Netscape supports hierarchical bookmarks, but it isn't terribly easy to figure out how to use the Bookmark List window (see figure 25.9).

Figure 25.9: Netscape Bookmark List.

There are a few important facts to keep in mind about the Bookmark List. First of all, you can create headers, which turn into hierarchical submenus in the Bookmarks menu, and dividers, which look like standard dividers in the Bookmarks menu. When you double-click a header, it either expands to show the bookmarks subordinate to it, or, if it's already open, it closes to hide them (and switches to an underlined style). Second, you can move bookmarks around in the list by selecting one and clicking on the up and down arrows below the list. The arrows are slow and clumsy (this task cries for drag and drop), and I recommend you only use them for moving bookmarks a short distance. Third, the most important thing I figured out about the Bookmark List is that if you have the Bookmark List window open, and a specific bookmark selected, choosing Add Document from the Bookmarks menu (or pressing [Command]-D) adds the current page's URL as a bookmark right after the selected bookmark.

In other words, if you're smart, you won't just casually add bookmarks. Instead, you'll open your Bookmark List each time, select the bookmark above where you want the new one to go, and then choose Add Bookmark. It's more trouble, sure, but once you try to rearrange your bookmarks with those up and down arrow buttons, you'll see why I suggest this method. It's easier in the long run, and it keeps your bookmarks nicely organized.

When you want to use a bookmark, you can select it from the Bookmarks menu, but if you happen to have the Bookmark List window open, you can also use the Go To button or just double-click a bookmark. When I was rearranging my bookmarks, I found the easiest method was to go to a bookmark, use the Remove Item button to delete it from its old location, select another bookmark in the new location, and press [Command]-D to add the bookmark back in. Clumsy, but effective.

Special Features

I'd probably place Netscape's speed at the top of any list of special features since the Web is only as interesting as the speed at which you see it come in. I find Web browsers like Enhanced Mosaic (see the following capsule review) that don't display a page until all the graphics have come in are unusable even over my dedicated Internet connection.

Second in Netscape's special features is its Bookmarks List, which although it has some problems, such as the lousy up and down arrows, it also has lots of other great features, such as letting you know when you added a link and when you last visited the link. You can manually change the name of the link or the link's URL, and if you want to send your list of bookmarks to someone else or post it on the Web, you can Export it to HTML. The View Bookmarks button gives you a preview of what your bookmarks will look like to someone else, and if you collect a truly huge number of bookmarks, there's a Find button to help you find a specific one. Finally, if you find all these possibilities boggling, just click the Fewer Options button, and Netscape shrinks the window to show only the list of bookmarks.

Netscape introduced the first support for what are called interlaced GIFs, or images that have been saved in a special format. When Netscape (or now MacWeb) loads in the images, they start rough and gradually become more focused. This enables you to quickly see if you want to move on or wait for the entire image. Netscape was also the first browser to support JPEG images inline, just like GIFs, although TCP/Connect II's Web browser also now supports inline JPEGs.

Note: I prefer MacWeb's style of bringing in interlaced GIFs because it draws every other line or so, but at full resolution, it seems as though you're looking through Venetian blinds, whereas Netscape draws a rough, blocky image and gradually improves the definition.

As part of its capability to open multiple connections to the same server, Netscape also supports multiple connections to multiple servers in different windows. I like this feature because when the servers are slow, it enables me to keep several windows going at once so that I'm never sitting and waiting for data to arrive.

In the most recent version of Netscape (1.1N), Netscape knows how to zoom the window appropriately. This is a bit difficult because the text will wrap to any window size, but Netscape has somehow figured out the best way to zoom the window for the graphics and the headings, which makes it easier to move between Web pages that assume different width windows.

Of all the browsers, Netscape is the most responsive in terms of allowing you to move on to another page before the current page has completely arrived. This may seem like a minor detail, but when you start browsing around the Web, there's nothing worse than waiting for a big graphic to come in that you didn't want to see in the first place.

Although Netscape isn't great at FTP, it has gotten better now that it allows System 7.5 users to drag an FTP link (really, just grab it and drag it) to the Finder. At that point, Netscape opens a small window for downloading that file and lets you continue working.

Finally, Netscape offers a configurable cache that stores text and images from sites that you've visited. Although this feature can speed up repeated visits to the same site, it also seems to make Netscape launch and quit relatively slowly, especially if you set a large cache. I tried as much as 20 MB at one point, but that made Netscape quit so slowly that it was painful. I now use a 2 MB cache.

Evaluation & Details

For the moment, Netscape Navigator is the best Web browser available, bar none. It's fast; it's easy to use; and it has some welcome features that all users will appreciate. However, I should caution you about the speed at which things change on the Web. It's entirely possible that another hungry startup with some wizard programmers will come out with a Web browser that puts Netscape to shame, at which point I could easily see 75 percent of the Web switching over to that browser in a matter of months. For the moment, though, Netscape has the spotlight, and if recent releases of Netscape Navigator are any indication, the company has no intention of letting anyone else steal its thunder.

In part because of its popularity, Netscape has rather odd and somewhat irritating distribution requirements. Netscape Communications, although they would never respond to requests for explanation or clarification, has said that only sites in the edu domain may post Netscape for access via FTP, which eliminates all the major mirror networks because there are some sites in the com domain included among the mirror sites. So, finding Netscape at any site other than can prove difficult, and that site is often too overloaded to serve all the folks who would like to get a copy of Netscape.

However, once you can get a copy, Netscape's wording says, "You can download a copy of Netscape Navigator for evaluation or for unlimited use in academic or not-for-profit environments. If you want to purchase Netscape Navigator and associated support for ongoing use, you can order it directly from Netscape Communications Corporation. Send email to and you'll get an automated reply with purchasing information." I'll leave it to you to interpret that wording for yourself -- nowhere does Netscape give a time limit on the evaluation period. If you do decide to purchase Netscape for the support, it costs $39, and a printed manual is another $20. International prices vary somewhat.