Life is getting lonelier for developers of alternate software for cruising the Internet.
Forgotten in the battle between Microsoft and Netscape, these developers have drawn small but loyal followings of Web surfers with browsers that often are speedier and simpler to use than software from the Internet Goliaths.
One introduced last month, called NeoPlanet, boasts TV-like "channels" to make surfing easier. Another, Opera, makes it easy to enlarge text if you can't see well.
But the global Internet can be unforgiving.
While there are no hard figures, users of alternate browsers are estimated at well under 1-million _ out of the more than 20-million U.S. users of the Internet.
And their ranks are shrinking. Two years ago, 23 percent of Web surfers used browsers other than the main two; that figure is now 2 percent, according to a survey by Zona Research.
That's largely because Microsoft, to wrest share from Netscape's Navigator, gives away its Internet Explorer, and has persuaded nearly all makers of personal computers to include its browser in their PCs.
The alternate browsers are "the unsung heroes," says Dave Garaffa, the New York-based operator of BrowserWatch, a Web site that follows the browser market.
"There's a lot of up-and-coming programers who are doing some really neat stuff on a shoe-string budget, if any. They are getting their followings but will never be a Netscape or a Microsoft Internet Explorer."
The latest alternate browser is NeoPlanet, which features topic-oriented channels that enable people to easily find Web information instead of laboriously sifting for it. For example, a user clicking on the "Money" channel is offered pre-selected popular categories, such as financial quotes and business news.
But Big Foot, the New York-based maker of NeoPlanet, has a tough job, several analysts said.
Big Foot, which has only 45 employees, is giving away its browser but hopes to make money from advertisers buying space on its browser.
Another hopeful is Opera, made by a Norwegian developer with a unique idea. The simple browser enables speedy downloading and runs well with older machines. But its most intriguing appeal is for disabled users. In addition to enabling sight-impaired users to zoom in on text, the browser features keyboard-only navigation of Web pages without the help of a mouse.
Another browser, called Lynx, is used by technically oriented Web surfers, particularly users of Unix computers. It can view only text from Web sites, but features extremely simple commands.
Cyberdog, an alternate browser made by Apple Computer for use on Macintoshes, sports Apple's user-friendly icons and doesn't run on Windows computers. The browser is considered speedier than Navigator and Internet Explorer.
Some analysts said that alternate browsers may regain some followers as Web users rebel against mainstream products.
Melissa Bane, an analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston, said the "backlash" creates an opening for companies like Big Foot.
"The two main browsers . . . for the average consumer's use are far too bloated and in a sense have a lot of capabilities the average person doesn't need or better yet doesn't know how to use," she said. "I think the goal is to make it as simple an experience as possible."
The other browsers
Made for MS-DOS operating systems. Fewer features than Netscape and Microsoft browsers, but runs well on older desktops and laptops with less processing power.
Cost: $30 (voluntary)
Web address: http://www.naf.cz/arachne
Made by Apple Computer for use on Macs, sports Apple's user-friendly icons. Doesn't run on Windows computers. Browser is quicker than Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer, but can't view some new Web technology.
Web address: http://cyberdog.apple.com
Simple speedy browser for technically-oriented Web surfers, particularly users of Unix computers. Can view only text.
Web address: http://lynx.browser.org
A browser "shell" that uses Microsoft Internet Explorer to run its underlying functions. Boasts TV-like "channels" to make Web cruising easier. Only test version is now available.
Web address: http://www.neoplanet.com
Developed in Norway, simple browser enables speedy downloading and runs well with older machines. Suitable for disabled users, with ability to zoom in on text and keyboard-only navigation of Web pages without help of mouse.
Web address: http://traviata.nta.no/opera.htm