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Lost in Cyberspace

Sun's new browser could make things interesting

This article was originally published on May 18, 1999 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

The ongoing and seemingly endless Microsoft antitrust trial revolves around the charge that Microsoft used illegal pressure to ensure that its Internet Explorer Web browser was the only game in town.

Mostly lost in the government's argument that Bill Gates wanted to drive Netscape out of business was the allegation from Microsoft that Netscape had convinced Sun to give up development of its own browser, HotJava.

And, indeed, after a promising start, HotJava practically disappeared around version 1.1.4. Even in that primitive version, though, HotJava was a sweet little program. While it took longer than Netscape's Navigator or Microsoft's IE to load, once up it displayed pages faster and had a clean, modern-looking toolbar. It was fully HTML 3.0 compliant, and displayed most pages just fine.

For reasons we'll never know, Sun has resumed support and distribution of HotJava, offering Windows, Mac and Linux users another option in the browser wars. Now in version 3.0 (version 2 was apparently skipped), HotJava is a polished browser that the company says is comparable to Netscape 3.0.

Which places it a full generation behind Netscape 4.0 and IE 5.0. Still, if not perfect, at least HotJava provides a real alternative to folks who for whatever reason don't like Netscape or Microsoft.

The only other full-featured browser for Windows-based machines, Opera, is a neat bit of programming. At about 1.3 megs, Opera is only a fifth of the size of its Java plugin, and less than a tenth the size of Netscape or IE.

But the look and feel of Opera are so different from other browsers that it just doesn't seem as natural using it. It doesn't act or perform clunky, but it sure looks it.

HotJava looks like every graphical Web browser since Mosaic has looked, right down to the little animated logo in the upper right-hand corner. Not that every browser need have the same general appearance, but it's what we're used to, and from a marketing standpoint, it makes good sense. (And as Microsoft has shown again and again, marketing is always a better investment than engineering.)

Besides, Opera isn't free – one can't blame the company for charging for a very good program, but given a choice between shelling out $35 or getting a comparable product for free well, which path are most of us going to take?

Like Netscape and IE, HotJava is a giveaway item – a loss leader used by Sun to attract customers to its other products and services (in this case, its various Java products).

The new version of HotJava is better able to properly display most pages, crashes less often (almost never), and offers support for most HTML 4.0 features (not sytle sheets, however). Version 3.0 also lost the smooth, rounded icons in the tool bar. Now it's much more conventional in look, more like other Windows programs. Too bad, that.

The main advantage to using HotJava is that Java applications on the Web run incredibly fast; no more lag time waiting for your computer to launch Java – it's already up and running.

Sun still isn't pushing HotJava, and, indeed, the HotJava Web pages argue that HotJava isn't meant as a competitor to Netscape. You have to hunt around on the site to find it (unless you use the direct link above), and there's precious little help for end users.

But if HotJava is intended more as a platform for Java developers, it remains an attractive, useful and free option, and one worth checking out.