If Mark Brown’s new book weighed any more, the publisher might consider charging by the pound. At 850-plus pages, Using Netscape 3 (Que) is easily the heaviest Internet-related book/CD-ROM combination that has yet crossed Mr. Media’s desk.
“We try to be pretty comprehensive,” Brown says, chuckling.
Not everybody needs a book of this sort, as even the author acknowledges. Netscape is fairly intuitive; most anyone with prior Macintosh or Windows point-and-click experience can probably learn the browser’s basic operations pretty quickly. “It’s not too tough for the average Joe to download and run Netscape,” Brown says. “But there is no documentation and there are lots of subtleties. We usually find a few tricks and tips that they neglect to mention. This is a manual for Netscape.”
One way his book can help, he says, is in using Netscape’s email software. “It is probably not the best out there. But if you want to use it, there are some good reasons: The Web site links are active and you can click on the ‘mailto:’ links. If you have the details, it’s easier to use than if you wing it.”
Another example? Plug-ins, software developed by Netscape and others that increase the functionality of a Web browser, adding sound, video and 3-D capabilities. On Netscape’s own site, Brown says that plug-in details and links are hidden — somewhere.
“Netscape Corp. is a pioneer of the Web,” Brown says. “But I don’t think their own site is well-designed for ferreting out information. That’s probably because they’re adding to it so often.”
Brown, who is credited as lead writer of the book, doesn’t receive much direct help from Netscape Corp. in figuring out their product’s quirks. “All their people are so busy, they don’t have time to work with us much,” he says.
Instead, he refers to himself and his team as Internet “prospectors,” panning for gold in them thar programmers’ code by relying on Netscape press releases and “Beta — test — versions of software updates.
“All 22 authors of the book are experienced Internet users who know how to get along without graphical browsers,” Brown says.
Writing a book such as this is complicated by the so-called browser wars, the intense competition between Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Every three to six months, an updated browser is released. That’s a much shorter time frame than it takes to produce a book of this magnitude.
“Because we want a new book to come out with a new browser, a couple times we have fixed things in a second printing,” Brown admits. “If there is a second printing.”
That’s the situation he now finds himself in. Netscape 3 was barely out of diapers before the company announced version 4 — completely revised and redesigned — to be released in Beta form in late November. Brown has overseen publication of three books, Using Netscape 2, Using Netscape 3 and Using Netscape 4 — all in less than a year. It’s a nightmare for Brown and his counterparts — one he thinks is shared by others supporting Netscape products.
“Netscape wants people to produce programs that use Navigator as the user interface. But in order to convince people to develop (applications, programs and other products), they have to convince them that Netscape is a stable product,” he says. “Instead, they come up with new acronyms and catch phrases all the time and then find nobody knows what they’re
According to Brown, Navigator 4 will just be one component of a larger Internet/Intranet program called “Netscape Communicator.” “Before, Netscape was the control box. It doesn’t work that way anymore. Now, Netscape will be one of the tools in the Communicator toolbar. Microsoft Office has the same thing to bring up Word and Excel. Even one of my editors was confused.”
But for all his caution and fretting about the speed with which Netscape products are evolving, author Mark Brown is grateful the company keeps changing.
“We’re kind of at the whim of Netscape,” he says. “Whatever and whenever they decide to change, that determines how much work there is for us and our schedule. And they’re making a lot of work for us. I’m hoping people will still need a book to figure it out.”
One more question for the Netscape expert: Why does Navigator, no matter how new and improved, still crash so often?
“There are a lot of reasons for that, but what we usually come up with is a copout,” Brown says. “The operating systems, Macintosh or Windows, are so complicated — the odds of your computer working at all are so low — and you add on top of that TCP/IP, SLIP, the likelihood of your modem working, connecting to the Internet and loading up a program the size and complexity of Netscape Navigator and I’m surprised we get online at all.