Barely a year and a half after it threw down the gauntlet, Microsoft Corp. is poised to strike its biggest blow yet to unseat Netscape Communications Corp. as king of the Internet browsers.
Cautious reviewers are calling Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 4.0, due out in early draft form in a week or so, a “truly superb” product that “may well reveal the next wave” in how people use their computers. A bolder view is that it’s “way better” than Netscape. One reviewer says flatly, “The so-called browser wars are over. Microsoft won.”
Netscape doubtless disagrees. Victory is even too bold a claim for Microsoft.
“To predict something like that is way premature,” said Dave Fester, product manager for the new browser. “Although I’m flattered by it. It boosts our development team, and makes us feel like we’re on track with the product.
“But reality is Netscape still has 70 percent market share.”
“Let’s try to keep some semblance of sanity in this thing,” John McCarthy of Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., agreed. “Netscape has proven to be a very savvy, focused competitor; I don’t think they’re going to implode.”
In the last couple of years, propelled first by Netscape and soon after by Microsoft as well, the Internet browser has risen from total obscurity to become a fact of daily life for millions of people around the world.
Basically a tool for pulling information from the network into the computer, the browser is a doorway - in this context, window is a loaded term - through which one looks at the vast landscape of text and images on the Internet and the World Wide Web. It’s also the doorway workers use if their company network is an “intranet.”
Both companies see networks and the Internet as so central to the future of computing that it no longer makes sense to separate the browser and the desktop, the computer’s main screen. Increasingly, choosing a browser will mean choosing the tools one uses all the time, for both Internet and “local” tasks.
But the two companies’ approaches are different.
PC World describes Netscape’s new “Communicator,” which includes a new version of the Navigator browser, as a “fairly complete communications suite, with plenty of tools for staying in touch, interacting with peers and keeping informed.”
“It’s Netscape’s attempt to create an operating environment that sits above the desktop,” McCarthy said.
Microsoft plans new versions of Internet Explorer 4.0 for Windows 3.1 and Macintosh as well as its newest operating systems, Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0. All versions will include a variety of new features designed to make it much easier to browse the Web and find useful information.
One feature is “AutoComplete,” which compares the Web address you’re typing to a list of sites you’ve visited and fills in the rest. Others include automatic notice when favorite Web sites are updated, and automatic delivery of custom information to the desktop.
The most significant change, however, is an option in the Windows 95 and NT versions that Microsoft calls “true Web integration” which turns the browser into a tool for navigating the computer’s hard disk as well as the Web.
“What we’re trying to do is make accessing the Web and accessing your PC work together in seamless, natural way,” said Joe Belfiore, who oversaw user-interface development of both Windows 95 and the new browser.
“The change in the user interface is evolutionary,” Belfiore said, “but the effect it will have on the way you use your PC may be revolutionary.”
For example, he said, instead of dressing up your computer’s desktop with a static picture, you’ll be able to include a stock ticker or a live video of traffic on your route home from the office.
“So the interface isn’t that different, but the effect it has by being connected to the Web is pretty dramatic,” he said.
The product is far from finished. Microsoft is calling the first version, to be made public sometime next week, a “platform preview” intended mainly for software developers. The final version is expected sometime this summer.
“This is Internet dribble-ware at its best,” said McCarthy of Forrester Research.
“One of the things Microsoft does extremely well is to rally the developers around their flags,” he said. “Part of that is you give them a preview and let them start fiddling with the code so when you release the final product there’s at least some semblance of application support and third-party support.”
One reviewer who couldn’t resist a rave is Robert Seidman, editor of Seidman’s Online Insider newsletter. After declaring the browser wars over, with Microsoft the victor, Seidman explains Netscape still dominates the market.
“Today, that is true. But the missile Microsoft is firing with Internet Explorer 4.0 is one that will take some time to do its full damage … The missile won’t detonate overnight, but when it’s fully detonated, Microsoft will be the victor.”