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Explorer catching up with news, mail

Tired of second-fiddle status on the Internet stage, Microsoft is working furiously to duplicate Netscape Communications' Navigator feature by feature.

Tired of second-fiddle status on the Internet stage, Microsoft is working furiously to duplicate Netscape Communications' Navigator feature by feature. Its next catch-up move will be the addition of a Usenet newsreader and email client expected to show up in a beta version of Internet Explorer 3.0 in two weeks.

Both features are already available in Navigator 2.0.

Unlike Web browsers, which are geared more toward viewing published pages, Usenet newsreader software is specifically designed to facilitate participation in threaded discussions. Browsers such as Navigator and The Wollongong Group's Emissary have begun incorporating newsreader support so that users can link to discussions while they surf the Web without having to change applications. The same principle applies to email software, which users can easily jump into while surfing the Web if an email client is incorporated in the browser.

The company already offers an Exchange email client directly in its Windows 95 operating system, but the Internet Mail and Newsreader is intended to appeal to a different user. "If you just need Internet mail, this is the client," said Kevin Unangest, product manager for Internet Explorer. "If you want support for CompuServe, MSN, and LAN mail, you want Exchange. Internet users want something small and functional."

Internet Explorer 3.0 has been in alpha testing since mid-March and is expected to ship in final form this summer. The initial alpha version did not include either the news reader or the email client, but Microsoft expects to offer both in a beta release within the next two weeks, a company spokeswoman told CNET today.

In the meantime, Microsoft today posted to its Web site a standalone program, called Microsoft Internet Mail and Newsreader 1.0, to get the software into the hands of beta testers immediately.

The Microsoft news and mail clients include support for standard Internet features such as simple mail transport protocol (SMTP), post office protocol 3 (POP3), and multipurpose Internet mail extensions (MIME), as well as spell-checking and automatic decoding of binary attachments. The mail client also supports rich text format. A future release of the software will also support offline newsgroup browsing, according to the Microsoft spokeswoman.

In addition to its desire to match Navigator's features, Microsoft is making the news and mail clients part of an overall plan to increase its use of the Internet as a medium for customer support. Last week, the company's Product Support Services group announced that it was abandoning its support forums on CompuServe in favor of Internet newsgroups launched yesterday.

The Microsoft newsgroups are technically not on Usenet but rather on private discussion groups accessible to all users from the company's Internet site. The CompuServe forums will be shut down April 20, the company said.

"Microsoft wanted to get that code out to Explorer users so they could get those product support services," said the spokeswoman. "Current mail and news support in Internet Explorer 2.0 is a little kludgy."

Related stories:
Netscape takes browsing personally
MS to open Exchange on the Net
Battle for developers' hearts, minds
Battle of the bragging rights
MS to co-opt Navigator plug-ins
Netscape vs. Microsoft: battle of the browsers
Picking the perfect Web browser