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IE 5.0: Mindshare over matter?

With no major advances, Internet Explorer 5.0 has less to do with technology and more to do with mindshare.

When Microsoft found Internet religion in 1995, the Internet Explorer Web browser was internally thought to be a natural extension of its dominant Windows operating system franchise.

Now, more than three years after the company transformed itself seemingly overnight because of the Net, that philosophy is becoming all but formal doctrine across the sprawling Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington. As chairman Bill Gates himself releases the latest version of Internet Explorer today, it is clear that the browser has fully been subsumed into a larger Internet strategy, from the manner in which Microsoft presents information on its Web site to the alignment of its product teams.

Although often perceived as a separate if not independent piece of software, release 5.0 of Internet Explorer underscores the company's commitment to forging stronger ties between Windows and browsing, implicitly and explicitly--in the face of the legal issues that continue to surround its place in Microsoft's business practices.

From a purely technical standpoint, the latest version of the browser may be best viewed as an incremental upgrade that refines much of the work done in Internet Explorer 4.0. Likewise, continued shifts in the company's strategy and organization seem to be slight alterations after the tectonic developments of last year. In early 1998, for example, the company reorganized itself to position Internet Explorer as part of the company's central operating system business under the guidance of senior vice president Jim Allchin.

This year's challenges will be much less technical but in many ways far more difficult: offering consumers a compelling reason to use Internet Explorer in the absence of revolutionary features.

When Microsoft decided confront the Internet head-on in late 1995, it initially articulated a vision for a browsing add-on to Windows, not a separate product. Only when rival Netscape Communications continued to extend its lead did Redmond respond with an independent Web browser program for public perception--forcing Microsoft to turn its strategy on its head, creating an independent browser in advance of melding it with its Windows operating system.

Now it's time for perception to catch up with reality.

"The transition to better match the public claims has been under way for several months," said Dwight Davis, analyst with Summit Strategies.

Now Internet Explorer is referred to as a "Windows technology." The spokespeople associated with Microsoft's browsing efforts are from the Windows development team. And the lines between what an operating system can do and what a browser is capable of continue to blur.

Equally unclear is exactly how IE will be melded to Windows. Microsoft executives continue to promote the benefits of using a single software interface to browse information stored on a local computer as well as that found on Web sites. But, at the same time, the company continues to discount the independent functions provided by browsing software.

"There's not a real easy way to define what is a browser and what is something else," said Mike Nichols, a Windows product manager at Microsoft.

To many within the industry and beyond, the biggest browsing innovations will come from improved third-party development.

"What you're seeing in both browsers is strong support for standards, something that developers have been waiting for," said Seamus McAteer, an analyst with Jupiter Communications.

Netscape continues to refine the next-generation browser engine for its software, known as Gecko. The technology represents some of the first fruits in the company?s strategy to move toward an open source development system.

Not surprisingly, Netscape executives characterized the IE 5.0 upgrade as "a minor release" and said the focus of their development efforts--making browsers smaller and faster--better reflect the industry's direction.

"IE 5.0 is one small step for Windows, while Gecko is a giant leap for the Net," said Chris Saito, director of client product marketing for the company.