updated 10/3/2005 8:03:45 PM ET 2005-10-04T00:03:45

America Online has inked a deal to distribute its Netscape Web browser with Hewlett-Packard Co. personal computers sold in the United States and Canada starting early next year.

It's the first PC distribution deal for an alternative browser since Microsoft Corp. won the "browser wars" of the late 1990s.

Under the agreement, Netscape will be preinstalled on all new HP and Compaq brand consumer PCs. New computer owners will be able to choose Microsoft's Internet Explorer or Netscape as their default browser. They will also be able to access the program from the "Start" menu and an icon on the desktop. AOL declined to disclose the terms of the deal.

The easy access to PC desktops gives a helping hand to Netscape, which lost its place as the dominant Internet browser after Microsoft bundled IE with its near-ubiquitous Windows operating system, which is preloaded onto PCs. AOL, which bought Netscape in 1999, sued Microsoft for anticompetitive practices. Microsoft settled for $750 million in May 2003 after it was found guilty of violating federal antitrust laws. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

"There's a lot of movement in the browser area now, and consumers are clearly looking for a choice," said AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein. "We look forward to talking to other PC manufacturers about offering consumers a similar choice."

AOL released Netscape 8.0 in May, basing it on the more secure software code of the open-source Firefox browser in an effort to capitalize on frustration over security flaws in IE that had become avenues for spyware and other malicious programs to infiltrate PCs.

IE's security problems drove millions of consumers to Firefox earlier this year, although IE remains by far the dominant browser.

To address the major stumbling block facing Firefox — the fact that many Web pages are built only for viewing through IE — Netscape automatically switches to IE when a user visits a site that's known to be safe. As part of AOL's settlement with Microsoft, the software giant let AOL license IE royalty-free for seven years.

Netscape also blocks access to thousands of sites that are known or suspected to be part of "phishing" identity-theft scams or that expose computers to viruses and spyware.

Netscape has gained some market share recently, apparently at the expense of both IE and Firefox. According to Web-based software firm Net Applications, Netscape had 2.16 percent share of the browser market in September, up from 1.91 percent in May. Meanwhile, IE's share fell to 86.87 percent from 87.23 percent and Firefox's fell to 7.55 percent from 8.06 percent.

"We've been very pleased with the adoption of the browser," said AOL's Weinstein. The HP deal and more like it "will just continue to power us going forward."

HP couldn't be immediately reached for comment.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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