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MS touts upcoming IE 4.0

Microsoft is doing what it does best: promoting a product that isn't yet available to the vast majority of users.

With a new Web site for its forthcoming Internet Explorer 4.0 browser, Microsoft (MSFT) is doing what it does best: promoting a product that isn't yet available to the vast majority of users.

The site provides a few details and screen shots, but no software code, for the "platform preview" release of Explorer 4.0, which is due to enter beta testing in mid-March. Like trailers for dueling disaster movies about volcanic eruptions, Microsoft's Explorer site is meant to tease audiences into waiting for its browser. Not coincidentally, Netscape Communications (NSCP) released a new beta version of Communicator last weekend, a few days before the Microsoft site was posted.

"Microsoft is on the verge of releasing the Platform Preview test release of Internet Explorer 4.0," the site promises.

This week, Microsoft distributed an early beta version of Explorer 4.0 to about 100 beta testers as a prelude to the platform preview release, a company spokeswoman said today.

Software companies are often criticized for promoting "vaporware," attempting to delay potential customers from investing in another company's products. And Microsoft is not alone in the computer industry for hyping unreleased products. Last July, Netscape released a white paper detailing its Communicator and SuiteSpot 3.0 products, then code-named Galileo and Orion. The white paper was strategically released one day before Microsoft announced its intranet strategy.

Though Microsoft has been showing the browser in some form for nearly a year, Explorer 4.0 now finally appears to be close to a workable release. Still, Microsoft emphasizes that the preview release due out next month won't be a complete version of the browser, though it will contain key features like Dynamic HTML, a technology for making Web pages more interactive.

"We?re getting closer to our preview release," said Kevin Unangst, a product manager at Microsoft. "As Netscape ships their updates and are very proactive about talking about Communicator, we want to make sure our customers know what we?re doing with our next-generation product."

The preview release of Explorer 4.0 will contain a number of significant changes to Microsoft's browser. Microsoft is melding the browser with the Windows 95 graphical user interface so that users can surf through folders on their hard disk or Web sites.

Microsoft will also blend its email and news client more thoroughly with the browser. The new email client, called Outlook Express, is a lightweight version of Outlook, the front end to Microsoft's Exchange messaging server. The company will also include FrontPad, a simple HTML editing tool, with Explorer 4.0.