IE 4.0 beta is risky business

If you're raring to download the just-released version of Internet Explorer from Microsoft, it could be quite a shock to your system.

If you're raring to download the just-released version of Internet Explorer from Microsoft(MSFT), the browser could be quite a shock to your system.

Beta testers should beware that IE 4.0 might not work with at least four online services: America Online, CompuServe, AT&T, and Microsoft's own MSN.

According to its release notes, Microsoft hasn't tested the new beta for backward compatibility with these services, which are all designed to run with IE 3.0. When IE 4.0 is downloaded, it automatically replaces the earlier version on users' PCs. This replacement could render the user interfaces of the services unreadable or even crash the system.

Some users, however, are reporting that they are able to access AOL, CompuServe, and AT&T's WorldNet with the downloaded beta.

Microsoft explicitly warns users on its IE 4.0 download page that the company isn't responsible for any damage that occurs and that the software is for "expert users." Still, the public hoopla of last week's release, fueled by media coverage, may give users the impression that there's not much risk in checking out Microsoft's work in progress.

"I would never run it at home," said one high-tech company's research and development director who asked not to be named. "It's still very beta."

An upgraded version of the Microsoft Network due in the fourth quarter will be compatible with the new browser, according to the company. The integration will be closely watched to see if Microsoft can successfully meld the next generation of its content services, desktop systems, and Internet technology.

Users have complained that IE 4.0 can do bad things to their system software. Because it is fundamentally an operating system upgrade, it can bug up your system-level files--one user reported loss of cut-and-paste capabilities and double-clicks changed to single clicks, for example--or wipe out your hard drive completely and force you to reinstall Windows. The company recommends users installing IE 4 to back up their systems first.

The Active Desktop isn't very active. Desktop components such as news or stock tickers that pull information from a content provider's server work inconsistently at best because of problems with the new browser's cache manager. Instead of pulling fresh info from a server, components are being redirected to the cache. More often than not, there's nothing there, so the component has no new news. Microsoft also needs to fix the scheduler program that lets a user program a push channel to update at specific times.

A list of warnings and known bugs can be found at the IE 4.0 download site.

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