louis martin
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Silicon Valley--

Sometimes new product versions are worth getting worked up about, other times they're not. And sometimes the worthwhile "revs" get no attention, while the trivial ones get it all. It's not a just world we live in--not for people, pets, plants, or products.

While the Beta 5 version of Netscape Navigator 3.0 "Gold" has gotten little press, it has features languishing for attention. Specifically, a just-in-time compiler (JIT) has been added, along with formatting tags that could turn it into a respectable print publishing system.

JIT at Last

The JIT is a welcome addition to Navigator because it promises to speed up the execution of Java applets or programs. Until the addition of the JIT, Java code had to be interpreted by the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) in the client browser. The difference in execution speed can be as much as 10X. For some applets speed doesn't matter, but for others it's crucial.

SunSoft, the guardian of the Java programming language, has long talked about a JIT but has yet to deliver. The JIT in the Beta 5 version of Navigator comes then not from SunSoft but from Borland International. According to Donna Sokolsky, spokesperson for Netscape, various JITs were tested by the company and the Borland JIT was the "superior product."

Note, however: The JIT in Beta 5 is available only in Windows 95 versions of Navigator.

Independent of Netscape, Borland offers a JIT for Windows 95/NT and Solaris, while Symantec offers a JIT for Windows 95/NT and Mac. Microsoft has plans for a JIT--Jacarta officially, and known internally as J++--but so far it's "vaporware."

While some, such as Terence Parr, Director of the MageLang Institute, have seen the JIT as crucial to Java growth and acceptance, SunSoft is now down-playing the importance of the JIT. The company claims there are factors other than the JIT that can cause poor performance.

Said Joe Keller, director of marketing at SunSoft, "I think just-in-time compilers are an anomaly of where the technology is in its life cycle." He said that in the future the speed of virtual machines will be discussed and "one of the techniques that virtual machines will use is just-in-time compilation."

While SunSoft shys away from discussing its JIT problem, it is freely discussing "Dev6"--the final pre-release version of the Java Workshop--due out next week. Said Keller, "There is a major improvement in debugger performance and windowing performance" in Windows 95 and NT versions. "That is where a lot of the virtual machine was challenged in performance."

Java Workshop was delayed at least once due to performance problems and negative feedback from developers.

Aesthetics Too

While the JIT in Beta 5 should improve performance of Java applets, the other area of improvement has to do with aesthetics. While the web offers extravagant multimedia features in terms of graphics and sound, it has offered almost nothing to the written word other than supplying a lot of them fast and with hyperlinks.

But according to Sokolsky, a lot of Netscape customers have been asking for traditional text features like those available in the print publishing world--choice of fonts, control of spacing, and multicolumn page layouts.

Netscape apparently took the request seriously. The latest version does not offer the full range of features of a desk-top publishing system, but it is a vast improvement over what has been available to date.

The FONT FACE tag allows the page designer to specify a font to be used if it's available on the client's computer. It also allows a list of alternate font to be specified. If none of the choices are available on the client system, then a default font is used.

Multicolumn format can be used, with the column width specified along with the space between columns, known as the "gutter."

Control of the "whitespace"--the space between words and lines--has caused web page designers much grief in the past.

With the addition of the SPACER tag, Beta 5 has now taken that problem seriously.

Indenting of lines is now possible--although indents show up only on the screen, not the page--and web page designers can think in terms of page layout much like print designers do.

There are also tags for controlling the color, thickness, and presence of frame borders--previously thick, ugly, grey bars.

Beta 5 is a long way from having the sophisticated formatting features of PageMaker, but it offers some of the basics. While it should improve the appearance of an on-line "page," it is not completely clear how this will translate to the printed page.

"When you're printing, it gets a lot more complex," said Rick Brown, spokesperson for Adobe Systems. Despite the fact that "you've rendered it ok on the screen," the results may not make it to the printed page.

While the new text features of Beta 5 may not win the hearts of Quark Express devotees, they could sway some whose needs are more practical. If so, Navigator might be used for more than printing personal copies with small print and long lines. And it's amazing how fast a new technology can sometimes devour an old one.



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