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AOL switches from IE to Netscape in beta test

Browser wars resumed, or a weird historical footnote?

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AOL has - finally - shipped a beta of its software that uses Netscape technology rather than IE. This suggests, barring major breakages in the interim, that the company could contrive a defection from the Microsoft camp with the rollout of of AOL 8.0 software later this year.

The current test software, being referred to as Talon, uses AOL 7.0 software plus Netscape Gecko, which is intended as an embeddable browser. The beta itself, according to a letter sent to testers, is intended to test the functionality of AOL 7.0 software with Gecko.
Previous tests of this didn't make it - AOL had intended to have Gecko ready to roll for last year's AOL 7.0 launch, but it wasn't, so the company remained stuck with IE.

Whether or not it's now too late is an interesting question. Microsoft's initial deal with AOL over IE was a critical factor in reducing Netscape's market share, and the Netscape versus IE rumble continues to reverberate in the antitrust trial. AOL is no longer formally signed up with Microsoft to ship IE as its default browser, but Microsoft today is a lot less worried about AOL jumping ship now than it was a few years ago.

IE is established as the familiar browser for the majority of users, it ships with the OS, and if a company like AOL tried to foist something alien, unfamiliar and - maybe - slightly disfunctional on its users then they might start fleeing to MSN in large numbers.

On the other hand, as even under the relatively mild terms of the MS-DoJ Seattlement there will be mechanisms for hiding IE and replacing it with alternatives, there is a clear opportunity for an outfit like AOL to take wholesale advantage. If it can use Netscape to create a compelling AOL UI/personal space for its users (or at least one that they're not going to get actively grouchy about), then even at this late stage it could restart the browser wars.

But you can see why AOL might just be a tad nervous about whether to flip the switch or not. ®

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