What Color Is Your Web Browser?

The browser is dead. Long live the browser!

It used to be that the quickest way to get into a brawl with computer users was to start a discussion about which browser was best: Microsoft's Internet Explorer? Netscape Navigator? Opera?

The fact is that over the years browsers have become far more alike than different. Only the truly obsessed can get excited about such trivia as "tags," "rendering" and "icon cuteness."

In many ways, that is exactly the problem. I miss yelling at people about browser trivia.

Browsers should be different. They are our windows on cyberspace, so why aren't they as interesting as the world we look upon?

Over the last year, a small group of companies has taken up the challenge, creating a kind of overlay that sits on top of the basic browser engine made by Microsoft. (A Netscape Navigator version is not yet available.)

The overlays let you put a different face on your browser. One made by NeoPlanet lets you choose not from just a handful of browser designs, but literally hundreds of possibilities from gooey liquid-like browsers for the graphic avant-garde to the Austin Powers version for the terminally hip.

Let the debates begin anew. Long live the browser!

Phoenix-based NeoPlanet introduced its free customizable browser last year. Drew Cohen, its president, said the idea behind the product is to allow computer users to have a little fun with a tool that up until now has been just a big, gray window frame.

"People get dressed up, but they don't all wear the same clothes," Cohen said. "If you have to spend so much time online, why shouldn't your browser be fun?"

You can use one of the "skins" provided by the company, or you can make your own using Adobe PhotoShop or most any other graphics program.

NeoPlanet, which is available only for Windows users, is more than just a pretty face. It has a few extra tools to help organize your favorite Web sites and conduct searches.

The price for all this fun is a small advertising window in the lowerright corner that I actually find kind of entertaining. It's something nice to look while you wait for a Web page to load.

The company also puts a variety of Lycos sites in your bookmarks, although these can be removed.

The current version of NeoPlanet works with Explorer, but the next version, now in beta testing, will work with both Microsoft and Netscape browsers.

One overlay designed for children comes from San Jose-based SurfMonkey.com Inc. One look at the interface with its animated monkey guide and you know this isn't your father's browser.

"What we've tried to do is make browsing fun, safe and easy in one package," said David Smith, chief executive of SurfMonkey.

SurfMonkey provides kids with a list of recommended sites to visit each day and lots of funny animations, like a slime attack you can use to mark Web pages you don't like. One nice feature is a dictionary that explains unknown words on a Web page. The multitalented monkey guide can also read e-mail out loud for young children.

The company provides children with a free e-mail account and access to a supervised chat area.

One of the key features of this browser is its filtering and parental controls. Any Web site a child wants to visit is first screened by a central SurfMonkey computer. If the site is deemed inappropriate, it is blocked from viewing.

Parents also have the power to block e-mail from anyone not on a list of friends.

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