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Explorer beta ready to channel

Microsoft begins a full-scale beta test program for its Internet Explorer 4.0 with support for more than 30 "push" channel partners shipping with the browser.

Microsoft (MSFT) launched a full-scale beta of Internet Explorer 4.0 today, with support for more than 30 "push" channel partners shipping with the browser.

At the same time, the software giant's archrival Netscape Communications (NSCP) and others continue to level charges that the browser's integration with the Windows operating system amounts to an anticompetitive practice.

As reported by CNET's NEWS.COM, federal lawmakers are asking the Federal Trade Commission to look into Microsoft's OS licensing structure.

The premier partners, whose "push" channels will be preconfigured with the IE 4 beta software, include the following: AudioNet, CBS SportsLine, CMPNet, CNET (publisher of NEWS.COM), CNN Interactive, CNNSI, Condenet, Discovery Channel Online, Disney Online, Dun & Bradstreet's and Lycos's Companies Online, ESPN SportsZone, Forbes, Fortune Online, Hollywood Online, Intuit's Quicken Financial Network, iVillage, Microsoft Investor, MSN, MSNBC, MTV Networks, National Geographic, the New York Times, People, PointCast, Snap Online, Time Online, Universal Press Syndicate, Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, Warner Bros. Online, Wired Digital, and ZDNet.

Channel partners are featured on the left side of the IE 4.0 browser.

Despite the prominence partners may receive in the new browser, Microsoft is not charging for such placement. "No money changed hands between players," said Yusuf Mehdi, product manager. "We did this to showcase the technology."

Channels and content providers may sound appealing, but the business world won't truly benefit from push until it is tailored to distribute company resources, at least according to one systems integrator.

"[Push is] a metaphor shift; it requires a different kind of thinking," said Dov J. Goldman, president of New York-based Dynalog Technologies. "[IS administrators] have to think about making their company data maintainable and keeping it correct. If they're broadcasting once an hour, it's got to be correct. This is not a TV set, this is a practical tool."

At least one content provider expressed concern over the maturity of push technology. "Not all the tools are fully developed," said Jake Winebaum, president of Disney Online. "The initial channel is fun, but it's not ultimately what we'll deliver."

Winebaum shrugged off the possibility of having his channel deleted with a single mouse click: "At the end of the day, that's the way any medium is. The presence of Disney on the desktop will not ultimately be decided by distribution but by the quality of our content."

Disney also has premier placement on Netscape's Channel Finder, the push component of Communicator that is due later this year. Winebaum would not comment on the terms of agreements with Netscape or Microsoft.

The IE 4.0 beta is now available in three sizes--minimum, standard, and full--ranging from 40MB to 80MB. The standard size includes the Outlook Express email client; the full size adds client software for videoconferencing and streaming media. All three are available as a free download from Microsoft's Web site and also include these features:

  • Active channels, otherwise known as "push." More than 250 Web sites will be included in a channel guide in addition to the 30-plus premier partners, according to Microsoft. Users aren't limited to the preconfigured channels; new ones can be added or replaced in the guide. Any content provider supported in the browser can be selected.

  • Security Zones, which let network administrators divide a user's surfing into four areas--intranet, "trusted sites," Internet zone, and restricted sites--and configure security for each zone. Users or network administrators may also customize zones, levels of security, and channel access.

  • Support for 13 languages, including French, German, traditional and simplified Chinese, and Korean.

    Anyone can become a channel provider for the new Explorer, according to the company. Providers will be required to describe their content if they want to be part of the channel guide, Mehdi said, but there is nothing preventing a user from adding an adult site, for example, as a channel.

    The first IE 4.0 public beta for Mac is not due until the end of July. The first beta for Unix is scheduled to be released by year's end, the company added.

    Windows OSes dominate the world's PC desktops. By making its Web browser a component of Memphis, the code name for the next version of Windows 95 now in beta, opponents charge Microsoft has an unfair advantage over other browser makers and in controlling Internet content delivered to the PC.

    One outspoken Microsoft critic charged today that Memphis's built-in WebView technology allows people to circumvent other browsers and amounts to a violation of a consent decree that Microsoft signed in 1994. The decree forbids the company from using Windows as a way to force computer manufacturers to ship other Microsoft software.

    WebView, which turns the My Computer section of Windows into a browser for searching a hard drive or the Web, is an alternative to a Web browser, the company acknowledged.

    "When you browse a Web site with WebView, you're still in the OS," spokeswoman Cara Walker said. "Netscape would have to do more development work to get that kind of functionality."

    Netscape has access to the code it needs to do such development, though, Walker added. Microsoft denies that the integration of the browser and the operating system violates antitrust rules and contends that Netscape is driving the allegations purely out of self-interest.

    Several U.S. senators aren't quite so sure, however, and have asked the Federal Trade Commission to take part in a continuing Justice Department investigation of Microsoft. The request, made in a letter signed by Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming), and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), could be the beginning of much larger inquiries into the threat of monopolies in the age of media convergence.

    An FTC spokeswoman said today that the commission would not duplicate efforts of the Justice Department, calling it a "waste of taxpayers' dollars."

    Congress, however, could get involved with hearings this summer. Sources on Capitol Hill have told CNET's NEWS.COM that there is growing concern about media monopolies in general, extending well beyond any one company or suspected violation.

    "Technologies are converging, and one way they're going to converge is through the PC," a member of Burns's staff said. "If a company has a monopolist position over what appears on the screen and can pick winners and losers in content, that is a real concern."

    Meanwhile, Netscape and Microsoft are battling to sign up "push" channels to their respective software platforms. Netscape has announced more than a dozen information providers that will be featured in Netcaster's Channel Finder, including ABCNews.com, CNNfn, and CNET. Netcaster users will also be able to receive more than 100 channels by using Marimba's Castanet software, which is integrated with Netcaster.

    Microsoft has been aggressively pursuing partnerships with companies, such as Walt Disney, in a bid to upstage Netscape. Last May, NEWS.COM reported that the company was promising potential partners prominent icons in Explorer 4.0 if the publishers agreed to promote their Active Channels exclusively.

    In addition to Active Channels, the new beta of Internet Explorer 4.0 will come with support for a new Java API (application programming interface) called J/Direct that lets developers link their applications to Windows.