Hot on the heels of the Internet razzamatazz by Netscape at its recent developers conference, Microsoft gave one of the first full demonstration of its long-awaited Explorer 4.0 browser to the world's press this week.
Due for beta before the end of July and scheduled to ship by the end of summer, 4.0 will be the second major release of the browser which was first launched last year. Officials claim they have changed 80 per cent of the product. "We've either rewritten or dramatically upgraded the product including the core engine," explained Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft's Explorer marketing director.
Areas that have undergone reconstruction include the browser interface to include the use of dynamic HTML, an upgraded email to enable people to send HTML pages, the inclusion of push technology, plus closer integration between the Web and the PC so that "the Internet is embedded into the desktop," explained Mehdi.
But what about the size? Microsoft may be keen to cram as many juicy features as it can to this free browser, but users are likely to need a hefty system to play with it. It will take 8Mb compressed to download just the standard browser and email features.
Explorer's second coming is long-awaited. When 3.0 was launched in August 1996, the software giant was accused of a massive U-turn after losing out on the first wave of the Internet craze to Netscape. Now it has set aside $1bn to Web-up every single area of its business from Windows and NT operating systems to Windows CE and WebTV devices.
"Our challenge is to get more end users and consumers to use the Internet, and even those who don't normally use it to use it," said Paul Maritz, Microsoft's group vice president.
Explorer 4.0 will go into beta on Windows 95 and NT 4.0 first, while releases for Macs, Unix, NT 3.51, Windows 3.1 will appear in the third quarter. Microsoft suffered heavy criticism when Windows 3.1 users had to wait 90 days for their version of Explorer 3.0. Microsoft now promises to shorten the lag to around 30 days.
One of the key developments is closer integration between Windows and the browser. The aim is to provide a unified interface to the Internet, Lan and files on the hard drive. People can search the Web without having to launch multiple applications, and an active desktop enables usrs to customise their desktops to include links to Web pages or other information on the Intranet
Having suffered from high profile security scares in Explorer 3, Microsoft said it has learnt its lesson and created a feature called Security Zone. This enables administrators to "zone-off" risky sites, and alerts users visiting risky sites.
CDF-based Web Casting enables people to create personalised news channels and subscribe to sites automatically.
Its mail management product Outlook will also support dynamic HTML. This wil enable usrs to include Web pages in email messages, and to enable users with mutiple accounts to view all of them in the same area.
The extra facilities will be likely to worry users that the first few appearances of the product will be full of bugs - something which frequently dogs early releases of Microsoft products.
Officials said reliability is important but customers will always want more features. ?No product in this industry has zero bugs. Just because there are more features, it doesn?t mean there will be lots of bugs,? said one executive, noting that customers tend to learn to work around bugs.
Microsoft promised the browser will continue to be free for the foreseeable future. It will make money through selling operating systems, server software, interactive media and Office applications. Of course, users will pay in the end. However, tightly integrated Windows and Explorer will prove to be a formidable force against Netscape.
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