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IBM leans toward IE

While Big Blue's consumer PC group will offer Netscape, it will switch alliances this fall and only offer Microsoft's browser.

When it comes to Netscape, IBM is playing a strange game of give and take.

IBM executives in the Aptiva consumer PC group said yesterday that Navigator will be the only browser offered to customers connecting to the Internet through Big Blue's Global Services Internet connection. However, the company also revealed that it will switch alliances in September for its ISP and offer Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser.

Big Blue joined Gateway and NEC last week when it announced it would offer consumers a choice between Navigator and IE. At the time, Microsoft was issuing public statements affirming PC vendors' flexibility in choosing ISPs.

Right now, IBM is one of the few top-tier consumer PC makers to offer both Netscape and IE on its desktop. Yesterday, IBM went one step further by revealing that Aptiva machines will only offer Netscape through the IBM Global Services dial-up connection.

"From the dial-up perspective, we have a history with Netscape, and we are very comfortable with the capabilities of Netscape," said Adam Wong, manager of strategy for the Aptiva line, in explaining IBM's decision to initially offer only Navigator as a browser option on its Net service.

However, "this will actually change shortly to IE after we start shipping," he noted. In September, IBM will switch the default browser on its ISP to IE, Wong said.

Though the change may raise some eyebrows, part of the reasoning lies in the fact that the browser metaphor is the biggest change to the user interface in Windows 98. (See related story) One prominent example of this change is that the ability to view Web pages and HTML content from within the Windows Explorer file manager only works using Internet Explorer--even if Navigator has been designated as the default browser.

In other words, the integration between IE and the operating system precludes users from opening up Web pages in Windows Explorer with Navigator. "Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer are meshed," explained Wong. "If you're in Windows Explorer [file manager] and you want to launch [a Web page in] Netscape, that ain't gonna happen."

Microsoft and Netscape both confirm that when a Web page is opened through Windows Explorer, IE will always be the default browser.

Netscape's Julie Herendeen, vice president of marketing for client applications, added this should not be a big deterrent for users though, since they get their browser from a variety of sources, including downloading it from the Net. "The message for customers is that [Netscape] Communicator runs great with Windows 98 and it coexists very well with the integrated browsing system."

IBM will also make sure the Netscape browser is available on IBM consumer systems in the "Programs" menu, said Phil Hester, chief technology officer at IBM personal systems group.

Microsoft, for its part, downplayed the significance of the IE and Windows Explorer integration. "If Navigator is your default browser, and you double-click on a link in the desktop, or you go to the favorites menu, or your 'run' command, Navigator will always launch," said Rob Bennett, group product manager for Windows 98. However, Bennett admitted that Web pages launched from within Windows Explorer will always launch in IE.

"If the user chooses to go to a Web site using the integrated services in Windows 98, then they are making a choice to use the integrated services," he declared.

Because IE is such a dominant part of the new interface, many users will find it more convenient to make IE their default browser for their dial-up connection as well, according to IBM's Wong.

"Even in the initial products, [the Aptiva PCs] will still have IE as the default browser from an OS standpoint," he said. "Come September, they also will have IE as their default dial-up browser. By doing it that way, it may be easier for the customer."

IBM's decision to change its default dial-up browser was a new idea, Wong added. "Only recently did we recognize that it might be a little bit more convenient."