The Browser That Roared

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In the beginning there was one Web browser. It was called Mosaic, and if you didn't like it you could go back to watching Murphy Brown, or whatever it was we did before we had the Web. Then Microsoft started giving away Internet Explorer, Mosaic turned into Netscape, and suddenly life was complicated. It was like Coke vs. Pepsi, or Mets vs. Yankees: everybody had to choose. When Microsoft won the browser wars, by hook or by crook (the jury is still out on that), life got simple again.

Brace yourself. A nonprofit group loosely affiliated with Netscape is about to release a new browser called Mozilla. It's fast, it's flexible, and it has the backing of AOL (which owns Netscape, not to mention Time) and its 35 million users. Life is about to get complicated.


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What makes Mozilla so special is the highly unorthodox process that produced it. As they worked, Mozilla's engineers released rough drafts onto the Internet, so hackers everywhere could try them out, suggest ideas, fix bugs and generally stress-test the bejeezus out of Mozilla. This is a technique called "open source"; big corporations rarely use it because it involves giving other people free access to the innards--or source code--of your software. But given AOL's chilly relationship with Microsoft, that seemed a small price to pay for an alternative to Internet Explorer.

How good is Mozilla? I tried a prerelease version (available free at www.mozilla.org), and I'm sold. It's fast and impressively stable (i.e., unlike Netscape 6, it doesn't crash every time you look at it funny), but what makes it truly superior is the clever, stress-saving bells and whistles that come from millions of geek hours of testing. For example: every morning I scroll through News.com, open-ing articles in new browser windows as I go, for later perusal. These windows tend to clutter up my desktop and get in my face. But Mozilla's "tabbed-browsing" feature lets me open those new windows behind the page I'm currently reading; when I'm ready, I just bring them to the front by clicking on neat little manila-folder-style tabs. Bliss. Mozilla also lets you turn off all Web-based pop-up ads, for all eternity, with a single click. Beyond bliss.

Mozilla isn't perfect. It's not yet as user friendly as it could be, and don't even ask about tech support: there isn't any. It's also not bug free: in fact, as I write, the logs on Mozilla.org show that Mozilla's thousands of developers have found 113 bugs today alone, and as Jack Palance would say, the day ain't over yet. But even if Mozilla were a terrible browser, it would be important just for being different. Right now 90% of the Web surfers in the world use Internet Explorer. Do you trust Microsoft to control how everybody on earth sees the Internet? For that matter, would you trust AOL or any other company? On the Internet, diversity is healthy. Sometimes a little complication can be a good thing.

Got a technology question? E-mail Lev at lev@timeinc.net