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Monday, July 13, 2020

Review of Netscape Comunicator
3rd August, 1997.

[Please note that the figures, pictures referred to in this article are not included here to conserve server space.]

Ever since its birth as Mosaic in 1993, Netscape Navigator has undergone major transformation. It has gone from a plan old web page browser to one incorporating email, news reading facilities. With each new version more and more new features are added. The latest version is no exception. In fact, this is probably an understatement.

So what is in Navigator 4.0? Sorry, wrong term. The latest version would be called Navigator 4.0, but it is no longer referred to as such. It has been absorbed into a mammoth product called Netscape Communicator. This is said to be a "suite of products that transforms intranets and the internet into media for multimedia groupware." It aims to seamlessly blends email, browsing, discussion groups, and real-time collaboration.

The Navigator browser is part of this suite of products. Others products or components include:

These are the components in the standard edition. In the professional edition there are even more, such as Netscape Calendar, Netscape AutoAdmin, Netscape IBM Host On-Demand .

System Requirements

Keeping with the trend of modern software it demands a lot of disk space. For a PowerPC version, a complete installation required more than 20Mb of hard disk space, and by the time you install your collection of plug-ins it could easily swell up to 30Mb or more. Although the RAM requirement is rather modest considering its capabilities. After all it is really 6 products in one! On a PowerPC with virtual memory turn on, or RamDoubler installed, it required 6Mb (without virtual memory you need approximately another 6Mb).

The Interface

The overall interface have been overhauled. Yet, it retained the characteristic Netscape Navigator feel to it. Those used to Netscape Navigator will feel right at home. The Navigator Icon is still there on the top right hand side. Although the animated image gas undergone some slight modification.

The first thing that you will see is the presence of what appears to be two "removable" title bars within the Navigator browser window. [see figure] The title bars are "removable" in two ways: (i) you can swap them around by a simple drag and drop action; (ii) they can be "closed" by clicking on the "tag" on its left. [see figure]

This gives it a rather neat and sophisticated feel. And on a practical note, it would no doubt be very handy for those with smaller monitor. By closing these control bars the browsing space increased. Not by much but enough to make a clear difference. At the same time the tag at the top of the page provides quick access to these control bars when needed.

The ability to swap the control bars [see figure] around is interesting, but I personally failed to see how useful this can be. Although I guess it is a good thing that the user is given the ability to customise the layout.

Floating control

In addition there is also a floating, dockable task bar. [see figure] It is similar to those floating palette that you find in graphics and page layout programs like Adobe Illustrator and Pagemaker. For those unfamiliar with such palette, it is floating because you can drag it anywhere on the screen. And unlike a dialog box, the main browser's (or other Communicator's applications) window remain active at all times There are four options on the floating control. These are (from top to bottom):

  1. Navigator- switch to the main browser window;
  2. Mailbox- switch to Netscape Messenger where you can handle your email;
  3. Discussion- switch to Netscape Collabra; this is the "Message Centre" where, as the name suggest, you can check you various mail boxes (email) or different news group that you have subscribed to;
  4. Composer- open the web page authoring part of the software.

What if you don't like the control pad floating around? Well, you can close it. This is why it is "dockable". Interestingly, once the pallet is closed it became part of the bottom right hand corner of the Navigator's window. And you can still access the four options by clicking at the corresponding icon on the window!

In sum, the interface is flexible.

3-D Effect

Another thing that you would immediately notice is that when you drag the mouse across the control pad (whether the one on top of the browser window or in the floating pad, including the ones in Communicator's other applications), the icons pop-up in a square button. [see figure] And when you click on the icon, it pop-down creating the illusion that a button has been pressed. This 3D effect make it feel really sophisticated.


Want to return to the third last page you have visited? Previously you would need to click on the Back button three times, or, choose the name of the site from the menu. You no longer need to do this. By clicking the Back button and holding the button down a pop-up menu of all your previously visited pages for current navigator Window appears. This feature is indicated by a little inverted triangle on the top right hand corner of the Back button. The same feature is available for the Forward and Guide button.


During three weeks of frequent usage, Communicators (at least the Navigator and Messenger component of it) seems to be more stable compare to previous version. So far I have not experience any crashes or freezes.

Also, compare to Netscape 3.0, Communicator is doing much better job at relinquishing memory once it has finished with it. Netscape 3.0 has a nasty habit of failing to release memory even after the program has quitted. This tends to hog up valuable memory space that is not available to other software. Communicator does not seem to share this problem.

New HTML Features

In an almost endless drive toward a better web publishing environment, the HTML language have undergone major evolution over the years. In Navigator 4.0 additional layout features have been added to provide better control over the layout of the web page. To outline some of these features:


Objects, such as images or block of HTML, can be stack on top of each others in separate "Layers". These layers can be made transparent such that you can see through to the next layer. If you do not wish to show a particular layer you can even hide it.

Style Sheets

Just like a style sheet on a word-processor, the Style sheet allows you to specify how the text, the headings, etc will appear. It gives you the convenience of defining the formatting instruction once, instead of manually applying to all the elements on the web pages. For a large sites this could save a lot of time.

Absolute Positioning

This is supposed (I have not try) to allow you to specify where a block of HTML (including images, links, text, plug-ins, and applets) will appear on a page using x and y coordinates. This should complement the control offer by the layering facilities.

Dynamic Font Support

With this web page designers can specified specific fonts and font effects. And these fonts do not need to be on the user's system; they are simply downloaded together with the web page just like the graphics elements.

Further, because these new features are fully javascritable, this really open the door to interesting effect like simple animation and page layout manipulation that is previously impossible to achieve, or, even if possible the method is complex.

Email Facilities: Netscape Messenger

Netscape Messenger is now an application in its own right. Indeed, each of the products within Netscape Communicator is an application. It is no longer an ad hoc email addition to the Netscape Navigator.

The features available are what you would expect from a typical email softwares. At least it has all the features that I often used in Eudora Light, such as address book, ability to put mails into different folders through automated filters.

At last... a Filter

Yes there is even a filter with Netscape Messenger. Previously, the lack of a filter is the main reason stopping me from using the email facilities within Netscape. Now that it has one I am evaluating whether to use it to handle my email.

One advantage of using Messenger to handle email is that it is integrated with Navigator. This means you can quickly jump to the web page referred to in the email through active hypertext link in the body of the email. This is certainly useful for those of you who do switch between email program and web browser frequently.

The use of one `master' program is also convenient. Instead of opening three programs (Navigator, another email program, and a news reader), you only need to open one program. But because the opening of different programs can be automated with AppleScript the advantage provided by one master program may be not that great.


Apart from the convenience, the email retrieval is also rather fast. For reasons that I do not understand, it somehow retrieves email significantly faster than Eudora Lite. It also filters the mail as each mail was downloaded. And you can even start reading the mail while other mail is being downloaded.

By contrast, Eudora Lite filter all the mail after all have been downloaded. And you cannot do any reading while the download is in progress. (As I have not use Eudora Pro I have no idea how it compare.)


Email that look like a web page!

Because it is integrated with Netscape Composer (the application that create web page) you can create email message that look and response like web pages. This means you can even put graphics and Java applets in it. This sounds interesting. However, unless your friends are using Messenger or a compatible email client the use of such features seem limited (at least for the time being).

It also has a range of additional features that I do not have the time or facilities to try out. This includes (among others):

Address Book

The address book is rather neat. Not only does it sort the email addresses, you can even store the person's contact information like snail mail address, phone number, etc. This is certainly consistent with the aim of creating a suite of products that handle all your communication need. [see figure]

However, if you are like me who already have a large contact database in FileMaker Pro, it would be rather absurd to have to retype all the entry into the Address Book in Messenger. I wonder... if only it can somehow be integrated with my existing contact database in FileMaker Pro. Wouldn't this be great. As it stands, I cannot see how useful this feature is to me. It can never replace my FileMaker database because it cannot do things that I can do with the FileMaker database (the sort of things that have been alluded to in an excellent series of articles by Hilton Brown).

An interesting feature is that Messenger can search directly any open standards-based online directory, such as the Four 11 Directory, WhoWhere Directory. This is handy. Although I am not sure how useful this can be since the person you are searching for need to be listed on such directory in the first place. And as far as I am aware it is up to the person concern to list themselves on such directory.

Should you upgrade?

Overall, my few weeks of experimenting with Communicator suggests that Netscape did a fairly good job in integrating email with web browsing. The two components remained distinct yet integrated.

This review have only look at two components of Communicator. There are many features even within these two components that have not been covered. So I cannot say that this is a product for everyone. Although, for the frequent web surfer, web publisher and email users I would encourage you to look into this product.

Keeping up with the latest version means that you can experience all the new HTML tags and layout abilities. Indeed, the new HTML layout features alone provide a very fertile ground to explore. Not to mention the hours of fun you can have with it!





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