Big plans, pre-releases, market hype. What's new and improved from the browser vendors? It seems strange that just over two years ago, I was using Netscape Navigator 1.1. Today I'm using Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 active desktop, Navigator 4 preview release 2, push channels, built-in browser authoring, self updating components and a host of other power-ups.
If you're an avid Web user and keep up with the times, this sort of stuff is as some Americans say "kewl". But if you're a newbie it can seem like quantum physics, and just when you begin to understand what's going on, a new all-singing, all-dancing browser is launched. But do these new-fangled browsers really cut the mustard?
Many are already claiming that Microsoft has won - beaten the competition by devoting huge amounts of money, usability testing and resources into Internet Explorer. According to group vice president Paul Maritz, $1.5 billion will be allocated to Internet related development in the next year. Marketing and well-placed deals will ensure that their share of the market increases.
Nearly every magazine and paper you read these days has a Microsoft ad in it. It's getting to be like the film 1984 - I can almost tell you what the ads say without even having seen them.
Netscape has been just as swift in its browser development and judging by its latest product releases, Netscape co-founder Marc Andresson won't be losing any sleep, not in the short-term anyway.
Up until a few days ago, I was under the impression that Netscape had between 55 and 60 per cent of the market share, but a recent survey commissioned by Netscape shows that the company has an estimated 70 per cent of the corporate browser market, but the real test is still to come.
Exactly what are the latest browser offerings and how do you work out which one is for you? These days, browsers offer far more than just reading HTML. Editing, email, messaging, newsreading, push channels, scripting and security are just some of the features on offer from Mozilla and Microsaurus.
Netscape Communicator is a suite of products which has gone down well within the developer community. It comes in two flavours - standard and professional. The standard edition includes Navigator 4 browser, composer (authoring tool), Netcaster (push technology), messenger, collabra (news) and conference. The professional version adds three extra tools - calendar, auto administration and IBM host on demand.
Rather than trying to create one almighty application having an interface more complex than a fighter cockpit, Netscape has opted for the suite approach - each part as a partial standalone application.
The interface itself hasn't really changed that much from earlier versions, but I couldn't quite get to grips with the Explorer-like button menu. A serious change of approach has happened here, which I couldn't quite figure out. The simple, clean buttons of the Navigator 3.x range suited me down to the ground, whereas now it has stylised icons which highlight when you run your mouse over them (very similar to Internet Explorer).
This sort of enhancement is all well and good, but what is the new interface adding? From what I hear, this interface was the outcome of some 25 rigorous focus groups, who chose from a list of options. Hey presto - the current menu style and general interface.
Gates and his crew on campus have released another version of Internet Explorer, albeit a slightly buggy beta. Striking changes have taken place in the 4.x versions. Considering the catch up, Microsoft has had to contend with, this is an impressive browser.
Unlike the Communicator suite, Explorer appears to be an all-in-one application, which could tax your system a little. It is currently only available for Windows 95 and NT, but plans are in progress to release other platform versions very soon.
When most people want to use the Web, they usually open a standalone browser and surf. Not with this browser. Have you heard the words "active desktop" anywhere lately? This is an effort to seamlessly integrate Internet Explorer with your desktop and your computer with the Internet. A good concept, in theory, but what is Microsoft trying to achieve? It would seem the company wants the Internet to be tied into every application on your PC, in fact, control your PC.
Friends cried "cool" and "wow" for a few days, but then turned it off grumbling like an old dog about it taking over everything. If you're like me, you want separate applications which work when you want them to, applications which work with each other when you want them to. Active desktop lets you do this to some extent. What's unclear is what it is actually doing behind the scenes. My advice - just say no.
Of course, all this active stuff relies on those glamourous words push technology, which brings information directly to your desktop. Do we all really want the Internet fused with our desktops? Can't we just call the Internet up when we want?
WEIGHING THE PROS AND CONS
Both browsers are comparatively very good and the core services they offer are similar, but who has the upper hand? Both solutions offer an array of services, but what are the base applications like?
Email is the real backbone of the Internet, but whose is best? This seems to be one area where both vendors agree. Netscape has offered messaging since the version 2 browser and it still remains a key component, which a lot of people use.
Both Communicator 4 and Internet Explorer 4 previews offer new technologies like lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP) and Internet mail access protocol (IMAP). One of IMAP's innovations is a way of managing a single email account from multiple points or machines, which is very useful.
Up until now Microsoft didn't offer HTML. Microsoft has promised versions for the Mac, Unix and even Windows at various stages, but alas no sign of them yet. Netscape has got the right idea. It's not just hype - the company promises platform versions and they deliver.
Sites often display "best viewed with any browser" and you would expect the pages to be the same in most cases. These days, developers are pushing the Web to its limit - graphics, animation, applets, embedded sound and extremely complex interfaces. Due to the subtle differences in the way each browser deals with HTML, you will find a lot of oddities and problems which are nigh impossible to overcome, as yet.
I do recommend Netscape, but I also use Internet Explorer (if you're a developer - you have to). It's like having your favourite shirt - you wear others, but they're not the same. Luckily, browser quality doesn't fade with washing.
With Navigator 4.0, you can get to a site you visit often by clicking on the clipboard icon (just to the left of the location field) and drag it wherever you want on the desktop.
Create an icon on the Navigator toolbar so you can access a pre-selected site with one click. Do this within the bookmarks, select file bookmark then select personal toolbar folder to create a new icon.
Arranging your tools
Move, hide or show any of the toolbars: navigation, location and personal. Make changes via the small vertical tab on its left edge. To hide a toolbar select show toolbar from the view menu.
Sharing your browser
You can program a range of preferences for different users of the same browser. Use the profile feature within the Netscape Navigator program in the start menu.
You can bookmark email in that same way you do Web pages as long as you use Communicator for email. Open the message you want, select bookmarks, then add bookmark from the Communicator menu.
Communicator offers a filter option that lets you sort, store or prioritise email based on rules you dictate. Begin the process of filtering your mail from the edit menu. Select mail filters, click new and enter a name for the filter. Select the field for the filter in the if the field. Select the operand in the of the message field, then supply the word to look for. Select the type of action from the then drop-down field. Once you've defined the action, enter a description for your filter.
This lets you and other conference attendees exchange image files and information pasted from the clipboard. A quick way to share information displayed on your screen with others is to capture the current window by choosing capture window from the capture menu. A cross-hair pointer appears. With this pointer, click and drag around the area of the screen you want to capture.
Get better voice quality for conference
First, make sure conference is set to use the correct amount of bandwidth by selecting preferences from the call menu and clicking the network tab. The network connection button should be set to match the speed of your network connection. If the voice of the person at the other end sounds choppy or broken, try using a lower setting. While you are still in conference preferences make sure you are using the correct recording and playback devices. To improve really choppy connections or slow response, select a slower speed compression method from the compression drop-down list.
Configuring your conference hardware
If you want good sound quality from conference, you should make sure you have the most current audio drivers for your sound card. Audio drivers are software programs that tell the hardware how to act, what settings to use, and how the sound card should interact with the software. If you don't know what brand of sound card you have, check your control panels/system by clicking on the device manager for a list of hardware installed on your computer.
Make sure you have enough memory and processing power. Conference really requires at least a 486/66MHz computer, but runs better if you have a Pentium with at least 16Mb of Ram.
Plug-ins give your browser extra skills such as the ability to play certain movie or sound-file formats. Plug-ins like Adobe Acrobat let you view documents or certain file formats directly within the Navigator window.
Communicator is shipped with a full complement of plug-ins, but you must select the full package when downloading your copy. If you are installing additional plug-ins make sure you exit, then restart Communicator so that the newly installed plug-in can work.
To check which plug-ins are installed select about plug-ins from the help menu. A page will list all your installed plug-ins and show you which ones are enabled on your system, along with the file types they recognise.
THE APPLE CONNECTION
Cynics say Bill Gates was buying Apple's commitment to the Explorer browser, but what is the real meaning of Microsoft's new deal with Apple?
The technology deal with Microsoft - hinging on the cross-licensing of all patents, Java collaboration and Apple's commitment to support Internet Explorer - is far ranging and comes with a further $100 million of funding in the shape of patent payments and other measures.
It gives new endorsement to the Mac platform. Mac users will now receive new releases of applications such as Office simultaneously with Windows users, ensuring that the Mac will have a major software base for years to come, a reassurance Mac lovers have lacked recently. This is not trivial for Microsoft either - about 10 per cent of its revenue comes from the Mac base and more timely upgrades of applications would help boost this - Microsoft was known to be frustrated at Apple kicking its heels over Office 97 for Mac.
The two companies will share a full cross-licence for all existing patents for five years, although it has not yet been decided whether they will license each other's operating systems. This means Microsoft will have access to some of the ease of use features of the Mac operating system, which could finally give it the technology it needs to make Windows as appealing as the Mac. Long term, of course, this could hasten the decline of the Mac OS.
"In many ways, it's more advanced than what we've done on the Windows platform," said Gates, in a comment more telling than any other about the long-term benefits to Microsoft of this deal. Apple's dilemma is not an enviable one - it has gained credibility and an equal footing for its own architecture with the mighty Windows, but what it has given away in return may ultimately benefit Windows at its own expense - unless the world does go the Ellison way and adopts browsers as the primary interface, in which case Apple seems likely to be sewn into Internet Explorer and Microsoft's Java Virtual Machine, despite its promises to maintain its distribution deal for Netscape's browser too.
All this raises the spectre of Apple being ripped apart like a bone between two dogs. Ellison's interest in the company has been primarily to bolster his crusade against the Wintel PC model of computing and in favour of the network computer/Java/server-oriented approach. At the time of his abortive attempt to buy Apple, he spoke of the suitability of its technology for Internet devices.
The Microsoft deal would seem to limit these ambitions, even though it has brought Apple firmly into browser territory with the Internet Explorer agreement. In fact, some analysts believe Java will be the great loser, particularly the 100 per cent Pure Java Initiative, which aims to ensure that all Java products conform to Sun's specifications.
Apple chief financial officer Fred Anderson said the companies would collaborate to make Microsoft's and Apple's Java implementations compatible and to "have a better Java Virtual Machine".
Although he would not confirm that Apple, a staunch supporter of 100 per cent Pure Java, would endorse Microsoft Java extensions, which fall outside the spec, many observers believe the deal will splinter the Java world.
EXPLORER 4.0 FEATURES
Explorer can turn everything on your Windows 95 desktop into a clickable link and add HTML pages to your desktop, scrolling stock tickers and other interactive options. But if you are used to the familiar Windows 95 desktop, it's best to disable the active desktop by right-clicking anywhere on the Windows desktop, then uncheck the active desktop menu item.
Shorten Web addresses
When you begin typing a URL that you have visited before, Explorer's autocomplete feature will try to fill in the rest of the address for you.
Press enter to use the filled-in address.
Offline and scheduled browsing
You can download favourite pages to view offline. To schedule a Web view, open the global subscription properties dialog box by selecting subscriptions from the favourites menu, then options - or click the subscriptions icon in the system tray on the taskbar.
Next, click the dialup tab and check "yes, connect to the Internet automatically". Select the service you want to use to dial into the Internet, adding your login name and password.
Finally, select the daily schedule or weekly schedule tab and enter the day(s) and time(s) when you want Explorer to update your subscriptions.
Once your subscriptions are updated, you can work offline by selecting work offline from the file menu.
Download linked pages
Normally, only the subscribed page is downloaded, but you can set up Explorer to download more levels of linked pages. Once you have subscribed to the page, click on favourites, then subscriptions, then view all.
Right-click on the subscription to update, then click on properties.
In the properties window, click on delivery, then click on this page and then one-page deep. You can change one to a higher number, though going even two-levels deep can result in a tremendous number of pages downloaded if there are a lot of links on the first-level page.
Adding favourites by dragging and dropping Explorer's Quicklink buttons give you one-click access to favourite Web sites if you drag-and-drop the URL or a linked graphic from the Web page. You can also create a shortcut by dragging a link in your browser to the Windows 95 desktop. Double-click on the shortcut icon and Explorer will display the site.
You can now exercise more control over the printing process. You can print a linked page by right-clicking the link and selecting print target. For Web pages that incorporate frames, you can select the frame you want to print by selecting the print documents in all frames option.
Searching is now integrated into the find button within Windows 95.
It has categories and a range of options for people, places and things.
Launch pages from the taskbar
Explorer lets you drag Web pages to the Windows 95 taskbar. This means that pages are a click away regardless of the application you are using.
Multiple email and newsgroup accounts
You can set up Explorer to handle multiple email accounts and different newsgroup configurations. For example, let's say you have separate personal and business email addresses and want to get your work email at home without configuring your system. Outlook express lets you check each account individually or all at once.
Outlook express contains an option called newsgroup filters that lets you filter in important newsgroup messages and filter out the rest. To create a filter, select newgroup filters from the tools menu, click the add button to create a new filter and select the newsgroup that you want to filter in the where to filter section.
Supply the information you don't want to show in the do not show messages that meet the following criteria field.
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