Revving Your Browsers
Early last week, new versions of three major Macintosh World-Wide Web clients – EINet’s MacWeb, NCSA Mosaic, and Netscape Navigator – hit the virtual streets with some fanfare. Thought it’s worth noting that none of these represent the release of a finished product, they all incorporate significant new enhancements and features, and all are available for both 68K Macs and Power Macs.
In addition, a fourth Web browser has recently appeared on the scene, although it hasn’t received as much attention – it’s part of InterCon’s powerful but pricey (about $365 mail order) TCP/Connect II 2.1, an integrated program that shoehorns clients for almost every Internet service into a single program, including Finger, Ping, Whois, Telnet, email, news, FTP, Gopher, and of course, the Web.
TCP/Connect II 2.1 — The TCP/Connect II 2.1 Web browser is most notable for its speed and links to other parts of TCP/Connect II. It feels like the fastest Web browser I’ve used, thanks in part to the ability to use multiple connections, but otherwise, its feature set more or less matches those of the other main Web browsers. There are a few missing features, like multiple windows and support for WAIS URLs, but it has some nice touches like a drag & drop interface for the hot list. Since the Web browser is part of TCP/Connect II, it can use the other modules for mail, Telnet, Gopher, and FTP links, which often makes more sense than the approach taken by other Web browsers, which try to force everything through a Web browser. InterCon’s Web site has more information about TCP/Connect II 2.1 and it also lets you download a demo version and apply for a demo key.
MacWeb 1.00A3.2 — EINet’s MacWeb isn’t supposed to be a real product yet, with an "official" 1.0 release presumably still in the future. However, alpha 3.2 of MacWeb continues to be the leanest and meanest of the major Macintosh Web clients, running in as little as 750K of RAM. Though a number of the improvements to alpha 3.2 are internal technical changes, there are also significant improvements to the performance and functionality of FTP via MacWeb, plus better handling of errors and user cancellations, recording of window positioning, and faster local file dispatching with helper applications. Still missing, unhappily, is the ability to copy text directly out of the browser windows (still on the to-do list) and some user amenities, but all told MacWeb remains a respectable, speedy client with a small footprint.
NCSA Mosaic 2.0 Beta 1 — In public alpha release since June of 1994, the Mac version of NCSA Mosaic 2.0 officially went beta last week. New features include support for inline JPEG images, support for mailto URLs in HTML documents, plus a controllable local disk cache of recently-accessed documents. Mosaic implemented support for HTML tables in previous releases, and that support seems to have improved in the beta, although Mosaic still has problems when extracting tables and other materials from the disk cache, along with a few windowing and interface quirks. NCSA also indicates performance improvements have been made in this release, although Mosaic continues to bring documents in through a single HTTP connection, unlike Netscape. Other additions include improved printing, better handling of pagination, and numerous bug fixes.
Netscape 1.1b1 — Netscape Communications Corporation released version 1.1b1 of Netscape Navigator with a fair bit of public hype, claiming that their clients account for more than 75 percent of WWW traffic.
Netscape is pushing hard on the idea that they’re committed to open standards in WWW development. Though Netscape has made some significant moves in that direction, several of its implementation decisions continue to generate controversy, such as its custom HTML tags and the decision to implement SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) security in the NetScape client and server products.
Netscape Navigator 1.1b1 implements several new features based on the not-yet-etched-in-stone HTML 3.0 proposal, including tables, custom document backgrounds, and dynamically-updating documents. Dynamically updating document use "push/pull" techniques wherein a server or browser can request that information in a document be periodically updated, thus making for all sorts of spiffy Web implementations – up-to-date stock quotes, animations, real-time updates on networked coke machines, and so on. Netscape also sports a MacWeb-like pop-up menu that allows users to copy URLs to the clipboard, open links in new windows, or directly save image files. HTML authors who have the Drag Manager can now save the HTML source to disk by dragging a link from a Netscape window out to the desktop.
Netscape Navigator 1.1b1 also has a few general performance improvements, enhancements to its newsreader capabilities, somewhat-enhanced scripting capabilities, and the ability (finally!) to change the background color of your browser window. Importantly, it includes support for three major Japanese character set schemes: JIS (ISO-2022-JP), SJIS (Shift-JIS) and UC-JP (Extended Unix Code for Japanese).
Netscape Navigator1.1b1 will expire on 01-Apr-95, although Netscape promises to keep 1.0N available and other betas may be forthcoming. Netscape Navigator 1.1 is slated to officially ship sometime in April under the same pricing and terms as the 1.0 release; purchasers of the 1.0 release may be eligible for free upgrades and continuation of their customer support. And, for those of you just itching to etch your mark on the product, Netscape is holding a "No Throbbing, Pulsing, Breathing N Contest" through Sunday, March 19, 1995, to replace the icon animation in the upper right-hand corner of their browser window.
Getting Their Feet Webbed — The three commonly-available Web browsers have consistently shown their laundry in public by releasing alpha and beta versions of their client software. In part this is due to the phenomenal growth of the World-Wide Web in the last two years: it’s certainly better for them to have pre-release browsers out there than nothing at all – if for no other reason than to make sure they stay in the game. But two interesting things are happening. First, the availability of pre-release versions may be considerably extending the development cycles of these products. NCSA Mosaic and EINet’s MacWeb have each been issuing alpha versions since June of 1994, but with final versions still off in a deep haze. Only Netscape is adhering to what might be called a typical software release cycle, for better or for worse. Second, like it or not, these pre-release versions increasingly define what we think of as the World-Wide Web. Netscape may be the most popular browser out there right now, but its HTML extensions and "non-standard" features have set a good portion of the WWW community on its ear, which in turn impacts the development processes of other Web clients and the processes by which HTML and WWW standards are set. Users of the Web might be voting with their feet, but do they understand the direction they’re being asked to march?
Netscape may be doing everything it can to use and conform to open standards, but in its rush to capture a market it may be helping to create a de facto standard, the ramifications of which aren’t entirely clear. And, let’s face it folks, DOS is a standard too.