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Download demons a new breed

A new breed of Net users called "heat-seekers" is willing to put up with the bugs of beta software just to be the first.

Days before it officially announces a new version of its browser, Netscape Communications (NSCP) often quietly posts the software on its Web site to give the "heat-seekers" a chance to download it before the general public descends on the company's servers.

Call them heat-seekers or really early adopters, a growing class of Internet users is willing to put up with the bugs and security risks of beta software just to be the first to download the latest browser or development tool. Although they are often developers eager to learn the ins and outs of a new technology before their competition does, others simply want to be part of an early "in crowd."

"They're looking for the drama in the release and how it adds to the story of the Internet," said Dave Rothschild, director of marketing for client applications.

Of course, the Internet didn't introduce the concept of early adoption to the software-consuming public. The day before Microsoft introduced Windows 95 in August 1995, for example, users queued up outside retail stores for special midnight sales. Still, the Net has provided a convenient, 24-hour-day emporium to indulge their appetites to no end.

Clay Ryder, a senior analyst at Zona Research, believes that some of these people thrive on being part of the cutting edge of a new technology, even if it turns their computers into jelly.

"There's a thrill of being special, part of the 'in crowd,'" Ryder said. "The Internet somehow guarantees you a lifetime of free software every six months."

The downloading frenzy that accompanies new releases is especially true of browsers, a new beta version of which seems to appear from Microsoft or Netscape every few weeks. Last week, Microsoft introduced the "platform preview release" of Internet Explorer 4.0, an early version of the browser intended for developers. The company hasn't tabulated downloads of the browser yet but says the number is somewhere in the "tens of thousands."

Dave Garaffa, editor of Browser Watch, is familiar with the phenomenon that follows--and often precedes--the posting of a new browser. Readers of Browser Watch, a kind of online haven for heat-seekers, closely monitor Netscape's and Microsoft's software downloading servers. When a new version of a browser is posted, Garaffa typically receives a spate of email from readers letting him know that the software is up and where to find it. He then publishes hyperlinks to the downloading sites.

"Regardless of the kind of job you have, I think it takes more than that to be so gung-ho over a new browser release," Garaffa said.

One heat-seeker said he often downloads software to learn how to use new technologies, such as Microsoft's Dynamic HTML, but some software is simply too buggy to use.

"The first couple of betas of Netscape Communicator broke my computer so bad that I threw them away immediately," said Eric Eilebrecht, a student in Boulder, Colorado. "The IE preview, though, really is very stable, and the added functionality and 'coolness' factor more than offsets the inconvenience of having to reboot my machine every so often."