After a considerable drop in profile thanks to being cast adrift in an uncaring corporate environment, and a failure to actual produce any relevant product while Firefox surged from nowhere to the the pre-eminent IE competitor… Netscape is back.

Netscape version 8.01 has just gone GA and it’s a very interesting product. A tabbed browser a la Firefox and some of the IE bolt-ons (e.g. Maxthon or AdvancedBrowser) coupled with some interesting usability and security enhancements and a very handy dual-rendering capability (so you can switch between IE and the the Mozilla rendering engines at the tap of an icon).

Sadly the reality is a little disappointing. While the rendering toggle is a time-saver for testing it’s not enough of a killer feature to make up for some of the short-comings in the actual browser (and it doesn’t actually help if you’re halfway through a series of form submissions as it tried to re-submit the page, rather than re-render the already available HTML).

The biggest disappointment is that the product simply seems unfinished and clumsy. While that is something which a point release could easily remedy it is not what Netscape have been traditionally been adept at doing, preferring instead to stuff more features into a product to try and hide its deficiencies.

The use of tabs is less elegant that in the native Firefox or Safari with empty tabs being ignored in favour of creating new ones, and the cursor not being positioned on the address field when one is created. Switch between tabs often leaves the browser confused, displaying incorrect refresh icon and status and often forgetting what it was loading.

The bookmark / toolbars are an excellent idea, but again faulty and counter-intuitive. I’d expect to be able to simply drag bookmarks or functionality to the toolbar and have it available, but it seems that unless I follow slightly esoteric rules I end up putting items on other toolbars.

The per-site security settings, rendering options and auto-login are great, and make life a lot easier and I hope they continue to improve without becoming clumsy, but they sadly seem to clash with the Webmail auto-login functions (another great addition but with the feel that it was built independently of the auto-login)… It’s fine if you don’t have auto-login set for a webmail account but woe-betide you if you have two Hotmail or GMail accounts…. it will be quite insistant on logging in to only one of them !

Addition of a built-in search engine shortcut and a number of features you would normally find of third-party toolbars is handy, but you also loose some of the flexibility, customisation and control - again, hopefully they will provide more user input to how things appear.

The lack of Linux and OSX ports is annoying at the moment (and after all the IE rendering is pretty much redundant on those platforms) but it would have been a nice touch to take a little longer fixing up the problems in N8.01 and releasing a really slick product on all three platforms concurrently.

It will be interesting to see how much slicker the previews of IE7 are when they launch - if it renders pages so they are as standards compliant as Firefox (or better, as they will render the de facto MS extensions as well !) then once again Netscapes claim to fame will be brief.