Netscape Communications released its final beta of Netscape 6, the Mozilla-based Web browser suite that will replace the aging Communicator 4.7 product when it ships in final form later this year. Netscape 6 Preview Release 3 (PR3) is accompanied by a new-look Netscape Web site, a Web portal that parent AOL hopes will retain current Netscape users. AOL says that these Netscape products are aimed at a more professional market than the typical AOL enthusiast. "Our mission is to serve the modern professional, who wants the best technology and easiest access to all the information he needs," said Netscape VP of programming Susan Mernit. "Much of the redesign has revolved around giving users easy, streamlined access to business, personal finance and small-business information." Like Microsoft's plans for MSN Explorer, Netscape hopes to better integrate its browser application with Web services.

Netscape 6 PR3 offers some interesting enhancements over previous betas. Most obvious is a new look and feel, courtesy of a new default "skin." Compared to earlier releases, PR3 is visually stunning, and the company says that this browser will look identical on all of the platforms it supports, including Windows, the Macintosh, and various version of Linux/UNIX. Netscape 6 includes a Web browser, email client, AOL-compatible instant messaging, and an HTML editor. The new release focuses on fit and finish, and stability.

But Netscape's day in the sun may very well be over, despite its impressive new product. Most Web surveys show Microsoft's Internet Explorer to be dominant, with approximately 85 percent of the market. This stands in sharp contrast to the scene three years ago, when Netscape owned this figure. Critics note that it has taken Netscape years to release this latest update and that, in the meantime, Microsoft has surged to a seemingly insurmountable lead. Netscape's best chance, then, is that a rival operating system such as Linux can wrest control of the desktop market away from Microsoft. Otherwise, there will be precious little incentive for anyone to switch away from a product that is already well liked and widely used.

On a related note, I was unable to get Netscape 6 PR3 to run on a Windows Me system, though it appears to work fine in Windows 98 and Windows 2000. If you're running Windows Me and Netscape 6 PR3, please drop me a note. I'm interested to see whether this is an isolated incident or a wider compatibility issue