Version 5.2 of IE for the Mac is available for free from Microsoft's Mactopia Web site. New features include better handling of fonts through Mac OS X 10.1.5's Quartz graphics engine. The new is available only for Mac OS X, the major overhaul of the Mac operating system released in March 2001.
"Without a doubt, there's more browser competition on the Mac than the PC," Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal said.
Particularly, Apple Computer's increasingly cozy relationship with AOL Time Warner could threaten IE's preferred placement on Macs. In August 1997, Apple and Microsoft cut a five-year agreement that included continued development of Office for the Mac. The deal also made IE the default browser on all Macs.
The expiration of that deal could mean the end of IE's preferred placement, even as Microsoft has repeatedly expressed its continued commitment to the Mac.
Kevin Browne, general manager of Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit, reiterated that commitment with the IE 5.2 announcement.
"We've had overwhelming response from customers using our products for the Mac and remain committed to building the best software solutions on the Mac platform," he said in a statement. "Our goal is to continue to provide the best browser available for the Mac platform."
But Apple is clearly looking at other partners, and AOL Time Warner would appear to be at the top of the list, analysts say.
"None of these deals are necessarily significant over the long term," Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg said. "Apple likes to occasionally show that it ultimately choose what to put on the desktop." It's the company's way of asserting control and a good way of bargaining with Microsoft, he said.
Signs the winds might be shifting against IE started in the middle of November, when Apple cut a deal that would allow AOL customers toto the online service using AirPort, Apple's version of 802.11b networking. Otherwise, wireless customers would experience connection problems getting onto AOL. In December, Netscape the Apple Start Page, which is the default home page for all new Macs. In May, Apple unveiled Jaguar, the next version of Mac OS X slated for late summer release. Jaguar features iChat, an instant messenger that is fully compatible with AOL's instant messaging service.
"With iChat, AOL can test the waters in terms of (instant messaging) interoperability," Gartenberg said.
On Saturday, AOL released a new version 5.2 beta that, like others, uses Netscape and not IE as the built-in browser.
Even as Apple courts other suitors, Microsoft continues to update Mac products. Earlier in the month, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giantthe first service release, or collection of bug fixes, for Office v. X for Mac OS X, along with MSN Messenger 3.0.
Ultimately, Gartnerberg believes Apple won't do much to rock the boat regarding its relationship with Microsoft.
Deal believes dumping IE would be a "a bad idea. Apple development needs to include IE, because it's such a tremendously popular browser. More and more Web sites are being designed with IE in mind over Netscape.
"From Apple's perspective, they still need critical development of Office for OS X," Gartnerberg said. Apple still does not have an Outlook client for OS X, which is one of the things that holds Apple back from an enterprise presence. That's one of the things they're making more noise about. So I don't see Apple doing anything to jeopardize its Microsoft relationship."
Gartnberg noted that for all its panache, Apple remains a small player on the PC landscape.
"Apple continues to make products that are beautiful, Sony continues to make products that are smaller and Microsoft continues to make money," he said.