AOL Concocts a Mess With Netscape 8.0

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, May 29, 2005

Identity theft is a serious problem on the Web these days. Just ask Netscape.

Not long after America Online bought Netscape Communications Corp. in 1998, AOL began neglecting the browser at the heart of the Silicon Valley start-up. Updates arrived at an ever-slower pace, and a promised integration of the browser into the online service's software never happened. Things reached a humiliatingly low point last January, when AOL launched a cut-rate access service called Netscape that bundled Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser.

If Netscape's programming code had not been released to the public under an open-source license, the browser that first popularized the Web would probably be pushing up daisies by now.

Fortunately, other parties (aided by a $2 million pledge from AOL) did pick up where AOL left off, turning Netscape into, first, Mozilla and then Firefox. The latter release has gone on to have the most successful start of any browser since Internet Explorer itself -- and with AOL's March 19 release of a new Netscape browser based on Firefox, things have come full circle.

That's not a compliment. Netscape 8.0 (Win 98 SE or newer, ) has more in common with 1998-vintage Netscape -- ugly, awkward and unstable -- than with the sleek, reliable Firefox. AOL's developers started with a solid foundation and added two worthwhile innovations, but the results are a mess.

AOL's biggest change to Firefox was to add the page-drawing engine of Internet Explorer. This means Netscape will properly display almost any page in existence -- from IE-only sites such as Microsoft's Windows Update to artsy blogs designed with Web standards that IE doesn't yet support. Netscape sticks to the Firefox engine, treating a page exactly the way that browser would, unless a site falls into one of two categories.

If a page belongs to a "whitelist" of about 150,000 sites that AOL or other firms have certified as safe -- including major news sources, search engines, stores and other name-brand destinations -- Netscape will display it in IE mode. But if the page lands on a blacklist of sites that AOL knows or suspects are dangerous, Netscape switches to a locked-down Firefox mode, with only minimal Web functions permitted.

You can also switch the display of a site from IE to Firefox by clicking an icon at the bottom left of Netscape's window. Select "Display Like Internet Explorer" when a page doesn't look right, for example, and Netscape quickly reloads and redraws the page.

This approach fails in a couple of ways. First, why even bother viewing a page in IE unless it won't function properly in Firefox? The newer browser is just that much more reliable, secure and convenient.

Second, under certain circumstances Netscape 8 displays distrusted sites in IE mode, opening the door to browser hijacking attempts. When you use a search engine that Netscape displays like Internet Explorer, the browser stays stuck in the less-secure IE mode as you click through to a page found by the search site.

The only clue that you're browsing with your shields down is a little blue "e" icon at the bottom-left corner -- until, of course, a hostile site tries to take over your machine.

I ran searches for sites offering pirated games, knowing they would take me into a bad neighborhood, then clicked on five or so links. Only one of them was on Netscape's blacklist; the others were able to pop up a succession of pushy solicitations to run hazardous ActiveX programs. One even appeared to be on its way to loading an unknown program -- at which point I exited the browser and had the test laptop wiped clean.

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