AOL's Netscape division released a beta version of its forthcoming Netscape 8.0 Web browser, which is based on Mozilla Firefox but also supports the Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) rendering engine. The unexpected new browser actually integrates fairly nicely with both the Firefox and IE rendering engines; if a users hits a page that won't display properly using the Firefox rendering engine, called Gecko, they can switch to IE using the product's Site Control Menu; it will then remember to use IE in future visits to that site.

Because the new version of Netscape uses the IE rendering engine that's built into Windows, the product only runs on Windows, unlike previous Netscape versions, which ran on Mac OS, Linux, and other operating systems. That's not a huge loss, of course, as Windows still commands over 90 percent of the market.

In addition to its unique approach to rendering Web pages, the browser includes per-Web site configuration of features like cookies, ActiveX controls, Javascript, and Java. The Netscape 8.0 beta also includes a Really Simple Syndication (RSS) reader and a number of features that will be familiar to Firefox users, including pop-up ad blocking.

According to MozillaZine, an online Web journal covering The Mozilla Foundation and its products, Netscape 8.0 was outsourced to a Canadian software company called Mercurial Communications and was not created in-house by Netscape staffers. AOL had previously dismantled most of its Netscape-related development sites in July 2003, just two months after Microsoft settled its antitrust suit with AOL parent Time Warner for $750 million.

The final version of Netscape 8.0 will be based on Firefox 1.0, though the current beta appears to be based on Firefox 0.93. It's not yet possible to evaluate the beta product, unless you've recently signed up for Netscape's online forums. However, Netscape expects a widely available public beta soon.