We've been messing around lately with the latest, hot-off-the-press version of Netscape's flagship product: Netscape Communicator, ver. 4.5. The good news is that this complex piece of software costs exactly nothing. The bad news is, that's about what it's worth.

Netscape's browser, of course, is the primary piece of evidence that the U.S. Department of Justice has cited as proof of its claim that Microsoft is a monopolist. Netscape Communicator is losing market share to Microsoft's browser, Internet Explorer. The Justice Department argues that this is largely because Microsoft is abusing its market position to push sales of Explorer at the expense of the Netscape offering.

We'd suggest another reason why Netscape is losing market share. Communicator is an incomplete and ill-mannered product that has caused us frustration just about every time we've used it.

This is not to say, by the way, that Microsoft's Explorer program is any better. In fact, the whole reason we started using the new edition of Communicator was that we encountered a bizarre problem with Explorer earlier this summer, and nobody has any clue how to fix it.

Our problem with Internet Explorer involves a basic Net browser function: the "Favorites" list. This is a collection of World Wide Web addresses that we go back to time and again. The "Favorites" function (in Netscape's programs, this is known as "Bookmarks") remembers the site, so we don't have to type in a complicated Internet address each time we visit a favorite page.

One fine day, for no apparent reason, Internet Explorer announced that it could no longer find any of our "Favorites." The problem is that Explorer is looking for our Favorites list in one directory, but storing them in a different one. But there's no hint in any Microsoft document, online or printed, about how to fix this. We sent an e-mail to Microsoft. Any year now, we may get help.

Fortunately, we had Netscape's browser loaded on the same computer, so we switched to that. A quick check at Netscape's Web site told us that the latest version, "Communicator version 4.5b1," was available. So we downloaded this upgrade.

The first disappointment was the realization that Communicator is an "ill-mannered" program. In software terms, that phrase refers to a program that wants to set its own ways of doing things, and doesn't adjust itself to the existing set-up on the computer where it is loaded.

We had a long list of "Bookmarks" on our previous version of Communicator. A good upgrade product would find this list of ours and use it. But Communicator 4.5 replaced our carefully compiled list of Bookmarks with a massive list of its own. Is this because the sites bookmarked on 4.5 have paid Netscape for the listing? If so, it makes money for Netscape, but it makes our life much harder. It's going to take a couple of hours to erase all the Netscape-provided bookmarks and insert our own.

Communicator 4.5 also ignored our choice of a "portal" that is, the Web page that opens when you first sign on. Netscape made its program head automatically to "Netcenter," which just happens to be Netscape's own Web site. (When Microsoft does this kind of thing, the executives at Netscape go crying to the Justice Department.)

Even worse, Communicator fails to provide some basic browsing functions. Every time we tried to listen to music or watch a film clip on the Net, Communicator told us that we would first have to take 45 minutes to download a "plug-in" program to do the job. When a friend attached a standard text file to an e-mail message, Communicator told us we would have to download a plug-in just to read the text.

A few weeks with the latest version of Communicator has given us a revolutionary idea. Instead of giving away an inadequate browser for free, Netscape ought to build a product that works and charge money for it.

T.R. Reid is London bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@twp.com and Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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