The browser wars are now a little more than a year old and there are two credible competitors left standing ? Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer.
Many of the smaller players have been pushed into obscurity. Even on Mac OS, OS/2 and Unix, Netscape has dominated the market and seen off many platform-specific competitors.
That has been the biggest challenge facing Microsoft in its effort to popularise Internet Explorer, which started life as a Windows 95 browser. Microsoft has made big efforts over the past year to bring its Mac and Windows 3.x versions into line with the Windows 95 edition, and by January this year had managed to do just that.
All of this was just in time for Microsoft to start talking a bit more about the next version of Internet Explorer, promised for final release by June.
A lot is expected of this new version of Internet Explorer, not least the ability to integrate with the Windows 95 desktop. This allows Web pages to be viewed as a Windows Explorer-style file hierarchy and, conversely, lets local and network computer files be browsed as if they were Web pages.
Over the past few weeks, Microsoft has started pulling back the covers a bit on the other things you can expect to see in version 4. It?s worth looking at those to get a better idea of what to expect when the product is ready this summer.
Microsoft says Internet Explorer 4 will build on what it calls the ?step ahead? technology of version 3, with operating system integration and the ability to deliver tailored information to the user?s desktop.
As for the people who actually use the browser, Microsoft says version 4 will provide them with the ability to personalise the Web by allowing for custom delivery of internet content to the desktop.
?Internet Explorer 4 takes you beyond standard browsing on Windows 95 and Windows NT by seamlessly integrating your computer and browsing experience,? Microsoft boasts in a background document about its plans for the browser.
?This integration makes browsing your computer, the Web and your company network function the same way. Your desktop and folders look and act like a Web page because they are based on HTML templates, which can be customised. Plus, you don?t even have to run a separate browser window to browse the Web. You just type a Web address in any shell window to visit that site.?
Microsoft is making lots of noise about the so-called active desktop in version 4. This is touted as a cross-platform capability to deliver content over both a local corporate intranet and the internet. In practice, it should allow users to make their own TV-style channels containing information from favourite Web sites, or let corporations create specific channels within an organisation.
All of this sounds rather grand, as do most such technologies when they are in their early stages of hype. Perhaps more useful than a catalogue of great-sounding promises from Microsoft is a look at one of the deals that could help make possible some of what has been promised for version 4.
In mid December last year, Microsoft unveiled a deal with Web narrow-caster Pointcast, under which each company will use key technologies and products from the other to ?make it easy for millions of computer users to receive customised Web information? directly on their desktops.
As part of the pact, Microsoft has selected Pointcast as a premier content provider for the Internet Explorer 4 active desktop. Microsoft will thus include the Pointcast network on the active desktop.
MSNBC, the online joint venture between Microsoft and NBC, has agreed to be a key news and information provider on the Pointcast network, and plans to offer its original content independently as part of the active desktop. Pointcast already broadcasts news from media sources including The Boston Globe, CNN, The New York Times and Reuters.
One reason why Pointcast has attracted Microsoft?s attention is that it takes a unique approach to displaying its information ? which can be viewed using the Pointcast viewer or as part of a constantly updating screen saver module that comes with the Pointcast software.
The deal helps Microsoft to continue eating away at Netscape?s market share by committing Pointcast to making the Microsoft active platform its strategic development and delivery platform for broadcast content. This will begin with the Pointcast Network 97, due in the second quarter of 1997.
Following the release of Network 97, Pointcast will distribute Internet Explorer as its preferred browser. Pointcast says it will also support active desktop formats and is committed to enhancing its content using Active X technologies.
Another key bit of Internet Explorer 4 news that emerged in late January was that it will be the first browser to support Microsoft?s new cross-platform class libraries for Java ? known as application foundation classes (AFCs). Microsoft says these libraries will help software developers create commercial-quality Java applications faster and will push them to encourage users to run Internet Explorer 4 as their browser to make the most of software written using the libraries.
Microsoft demonstrated the AFCs and solicited feedback at a design preview in mid January with more than 80 independent Java developers. The company says this meeting was the latest in a long series of design previews held by Microsoft to get early input from developers on key MS technologies.
Microsoft is also characteristically immodest in its assessment of why developers should move to using these libraries when developing Java applications. For example, it says the AFC user interface libraries give developers far more control and flexibility in the presentation of applications than does the basic Java AWT library, as well as being faster and requiring less memory to operate than AWT.
Microsoft says it is also including pre-built components ? such as toolbars, tabbed dialogue boxes and tree controls ? that can save considerable development time.
In a strongly worded public statement, Microsoft denied that this is an effort to develop a separate, Windows-specific version of the Java development language. ?This is simply inaccurate. Microsoft?s Java strategy is to provide the fastest, most robust and compatible implementation of Java and give developers the broadest choice in how and where to deliver their Java applications,? said the company.
?We are committed to full compatibility with the Java language and virtual machine.?
Netscape is not taking all of this lying down. Last month it announced a further tie-in with Corel that will see Netscape Communicator ? Netscape?s integrated suite of client software for open email, groupware and browsing ? integrated tightly with Corel Wordperfect Suite 8 and Corel Office Professional 8 when they ship later this year.
The idea is to have a strong counter for the way Microsoft is incorporating its browser technology into Office 97 and planned updates to Windows 95. Corel and Netscape say their development efforts will focus on combining the open standards-based features of Communicator with the desktop productivity functions of Corel?s products.
Corel has offered Netscape Navigator as a bundled solution with Corel Wordperfect Suite and Corel Office Professional since early 1996. Netscape also announced it has licensed Corel?s Wordperfect Suite for internal use. In addition, Corel has released a pre-beta version of Corel Office for Java on the Web at http://officeforjava.corel.com.
Internet Explorer 4 will certainly have an impact on dealers, mainly because Microsoft has no plans to charge for it. This could prove a huge liability for dealers which rely on Netscape Navigator as part of their core business, although the fact that MS has been giving away earlier versions of its browser for more than a year should mitigate much of that potential damage to sales.
But if Internet Explorer 4 is successful, it could create much greater demand from users for applications that integrate with it. Given the way Office 97 is being tightly tied to exploit the browser technology in Explorer, while Netscape throws its lot in with Corel, the battle of the browsers looks like it may increasingly be tied to the battle of the office suites.
The importance of this shift should not be underestimated, particularly as the demand for internet access begins to grow. This should start as cable modem-based service providers begin to move into the access market and put pressure on the old pay-by-the-minute pricing model for local calls, as used by BT. It is then likely that internet access will become more universal and demand for products that make the most of this access will rise steeply.
Users that decide internet access will be an important part of what they do with their computers will be forced to choose between Netscape and Microsoft, even when buying office suite software.
While it will certainly be possible for people to have Office 97 and Netscape Communicator running alongside one another, there will be a lot of duplication of features that could prove confusing. The same applies to the combination of Corel Wordperfect and Internet Explorer 4.
The biggest challenge ? at least for browsers running on new Intel-based PCs ? seems to be for Netscape, as Microsoft has already said it plans to continue shipping new versions of Windows 95 bundled with Internet Explorer. With Explorer 4 designed to integrate heavily with the operating system, the question of whether or not another dedicated browser is required is likely to be answered in Microsoft?s favour.
On the other hand, Netscape starts from a stronger position: Navigator is by far the most popular Web browser, and the company has a strategy for Windows 3.1, Mac and Unix systems that has seen Microsoft lag far behind.
So the battle of the browsers has now become a mirror of the many other battles in the industry ? for office suites, operating systems and hardware platforms ? with Microsoft and its supporters on one side and Netscape on the other with everyone else. As yet, it is too early to declare a winner.
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