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Public Release 2: Should Netscape still die?

26 September, 2000

In an earlier column, I bagged Netscape’s standards support. I said it was buggy. I said Netscape should die.

Netscape delayed improving their version 4.0 offering because they’d pinned their hopes on the whiz-bang new Mozilla engine and the wonders of open source. It was so easy to trust the open-source crowd; they’re not in it for the money. Despite warning us of “stranger danger” as children, our parents would take us to the mall every Christmas to sit on the lap of some fat bearded guy who promised us toys that never arrived. Now we are adults, and we still trust fat bearded guys and their empty promises. Did Netscape not realise how long rewriting from scratch would take?

Preview Release 1 of Netscape 6 came out earlier in the year, to deserved jeers from most quarters. It was buggy, slow, and had a disgusting user interface. But now Preview Release 2 is out. Should I be reconsidering my stance? Should Netscape have trusted the promises of open source? Has it been worth the wait?

Raising the standards

Netscape has made a big deal of its standards support. Most people have taken them at their word. For example, the Style Master site’s idea of a report on Netscape 6’s CSS support is as follows:
This is an easy report to use. You can treat all features of CSS1 as well supported by Netscape 6. There are quirks and minor problems at this stage, which we expect – due to Mozilla’s commitment to complete, error-free standards implementation – to be eliminated by the final release of Netscape 6.

Well, that’s nice, but real web designers need to know what bugs there are in the browsers their readers are using now. And although the share of web users using Mozilla or Netscape 6 PR2 is pretty trivial (less than 1% – we get more iCab users here at MacEdition), it’s growing. If there are bugs, we need to know about them and work around them, even if only for a little while. If we have browser-sniffing JavaScripts to ensure that browsers only get the features they won’t crash over, do we put Netscape 6 in the "good guys" or "bad guys" group? Hope and expectation isn’t enough.

Get your CSS bugs here!

So one evening, I drove Netscape PR2 through the W3C’s CSS test suite. Guess what? It’s not there yet. The glitches are minor, and nowhere near as bad as version 4 of either Netscape or IE. But glitches there are, and if Netscape is to proclaim its standards support, it will have to fix these before the final release.

Section 1.5 (ID as selector)
The sentence that should be black is red. For proof, see this screen shot. Now the error that Netscape is making here is pretty subtle. In CSS1, class and id names can’t start with a number – if you declare a class or id with a number, the styles shouldn’t apply. In Netscape PR2 – on this page at least – the style come through. Early versions of IE made the same mistake, but it was fixed at least in IE 4.5 and 5 for Mac. The weird thing is that Netscape 4.x didn’t make this mistake. Why the backslide?
Section 4.14 (Floating elements)
The second pair of examples has paragraphs floating outside the right margin of the DIV, which shouldn’t happen. Also, the paragraph case in the third pair of examples has the paragraphs overlapping when it shouldn’t; and the paragraphs are side-by-side instead of one a little above the other. [screenshot]
Sections 4.3 (Replaced elements) and 5.5.23 (width)
Images don’t resize in response to CSS size directives that are percentages of the parent element, although they will resize to absolute pixels or percentages of their original size [screenshot of Section 4.3].
Section 5.4.3 (Text decoration)
Text underlines don’t span inline images, even though they should [screenshot].

IE 5 for Mac gets all of the above right, although it too has a couple of CSS glitches. (And before you send that email accusing me of being an Explorer shill, you may want to reserve judgement until after my next column).

Moreover, I was able to crash Netscape 6 PR2 consistently on one of W3C’s float test pages, for reasons I don’t fully understand. (In Netscape 4.x, it looks ridiculous, but at least it doesn’t crash.)

Having said that, there are a lot of improvements in PR2. It’s faster than PR1, although I’m still not happy enough with its performance to use it as my main browser. It now supports the title attribute for tags like ACRONYM and SPAN. It still doesn’t show the background of empty table cells in the pages I’ve tried, but doesn’t require a border to make background colors show like the version 4.x iterations of Netscape do.

The Lowdown

It was about six months between PR1 and PR2. We will probably have to wait another six for the final release. In the meantime, we have a preview release that is still too slow for daily browsing, and almost, but not quite, lives up to its publicity on standards support. Web designers should keep an eye on their site’s logs, to see if it is gaining more than the miniscule share it seems to have captured so far, and be aware of its glitches. Netscape 6 PR2 might be enough to get some Netscape 4.x users to upgrade, which will make many web developers happier. But in its current form, it’s not going to win back IE users.

— CodeBitch (codebitch@macedition.com) is the grumpy cow who does the HTML production for MacEdition.

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