On September 30th, a new world came to computers. Forget everything you know about browsing the Internet because Microsoft has decided that you need a new browser. And if you looked at the platform previews that were posted throughout the summer, you now understand why many of us in the press wonder about Netscape’s long term potentials.
With IE4, the browser war is over and Microsoft has won. Faster Java, Dynamic HTML, push technology, seamless integration with the
desktop – merely a few of the weapons Microsoft has used to put Netscape to rest. Consider:
Java: When comparing Internet Explorer 4.0 and Netscape Communicator 4.0 side by side on the same machine, it becomes clear that the IE virtual machine is faster. However, this does not necessarily mean that it is better. The shortcuts Microsoft engineers have taken to tweak their JVM have created a small side effect – some Java applets simply refuse to run under IE4. This means that Java programmers will now have to add this other client to their testing list. So much for write once, run anywhere.
Dynamic HTML: Presented to the World Wide Web Consortium as a proposal for HTML 4.0, Dynamic HTML (DHTML) turns the markup language into a full fledged scripting language. With DHTML, the focus moves from simple markup to an organizational object framework. Making heavy use of the OBJECT tag, DHTML allows Web creators to hook up components and create somewhat smarter pages. One can now create basic database structures or animate graphics directly in the HTML code. As a result, some of the operations that used to be reserved to server-side are now moving to the client, allowing for faster processing of the information.
Push technology: With IE4, Microsoft introduces CDF, its own push technology. One of the clear advantages of CDF over other push solutions is that it does not require a special server. Web authors create a separate file in which information about how often the channel should be updated and what pages should be used. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that the company I work for, EarthWeb, is offering one of the top level CDF channels).
Seamless integration with the desktop: The feature that people will probably talk about the most is Internet Explorer’s integration with the Windows desktop. With this, Microsoft is bringing the browser war back on its own turf. Historically, Microsoft has always owned the desktop space. With IE4, the company transforms the browser into just another Windows feature. If you do turn the shell integration on, your desktop is now treated as another HTML form. To do so, Microsoft has converted some elements of Windows into ActiveX components. This feature is only useful if your computer is connected all the time to the Internet, as it allows users to update information on the desktop. A quick, informal poll of friends, co-workers and subscribers on my mailing list showed that the strategy doesn’t please everyone. Some people were disturbed by the new way of surfing around their PCs while others considered it useful.
Also of note is the autocomplete feature, which inserts the “www” and “http://” when users key in URLS. Interestingly enough, the most advanced version of autocomplete (which includes the option of typing a page’s title instead of a URL) works on the Macintosh but is not available on the PC.
An improved mail and news client also closes the gap between Microsoft and Netscape. However, neither of them as come up with an integrated way of surfing pages and reading mail in a single window.
Overall, Microsoft has put together a very nice product and it seems that, when it comes to the Windows platform, IE4 has taken the lead. In a battle where Microsoft was trailing, it is now up to Netscape to play catch-up. The release version of the browser is available for free from Microsoft’s Web site at www.microsoft.com/ie. For people who can’t bear the idea of a heavy download (the full installation is 2OMb), the company offers the 400k Active Setup client which downloads the client in smaller chunks and will send out CD-ROMs to people who request them (and considering the Microsoft marketing machines, you can expect those CDs to become as prevalent as AOL disks).