Gates said Internet Explorer 5.0 (IE 5) is another step in Microsoft's aim to bring the PC and, by extension, the Web, to a greater number of users. Gates also reiterated his philosophy for the Internet, alluding to the new software only as a means to an end that will result in more pervasive uses for the Web.
The latest browsing upgrade includes a variety of new features, as previously reported, but no major changes in the tool.
More significantly, Gates said the latest browser would be the "cornerstone" of an update to Windows 98, due out this fall.
Gates's vision of the role his company's products can play is simple: "Taking the Internet, combining it with great software, and turning it into the most powerful tool of all time," he told a small group of press and analysts here.
"This vision is driving everything Microsoft does," Gates said.
In conjunction with the launch, Microsoft executives revealed plans to make its email client, Outlook Express, and its free email service, Hotmail, more integrated. Essentially, Microsoft is trying to let users access both accounts via a single interface and incorporate incoming Hotmail messages into Outlook, allowing a user to respond to those messages offline.
The new feature is currently in testing and is scheduled to be available later this year.
In addition, the company touted performance improvements, ease-of-use changes, and an integrated audio tool bar that allows users to play feeds without launching a separate window.
"Internet Explorer, like all of our Windows technologies, is a platform," Gates said, alluding to the slew of third parties who are building on top of IE.
Internet Explorer 5.0 will be simultaneously released for Windows 3.1, 95, 98, and NT, as well as Sun Microsystems' Solaris and Hewlett-Packard's HP UX versions of Unix. An updated 5.0 version of IE for Apple Computer Macintosh users will be available in the fall.
There are no plans for a Linux version of Internet Explorer, according to Brad Chase, director of Windows marketing at Microsoft.
Unlike the rollout of IE 4.0, which was met with numerous complaints and forced Microsoft to quickly release an upgrade with fixes, company executives think IE 5 is stable. "We've learned a lot from 4.0," said Mike Nichols, a Windows product manager.
Indicative of the legal issues swirling around the company, Microsoft took a subdued approach to the event, choosing to unveil its latest Web browsing advancements in a dark studio on the Redmond campus. Microsoft executives were surrounded by a stage that was designed to look like the den of a home.
The company took a similar approach to the launch of its Windows 98 operating system.
Gates did refer to Internet Explorer as a "browser" several times during his presentation, a distinction the company has taken pains to minimize as part of its antitrust case.
In response to a question regarding the merger of America Online and Netscape Communications, Gates reiterated Microsoft's view that it is the best example of a competitive environment in the computing industry.
"Nothing could show better how intense the competition in this business is," Gates said. "They are the big guy when it comes to the whole Internet space.
"At the end of the day, users choose," he added.
Gates also used the IE rollout to promote the expanded use of Extensible Markup Language (XML)--a Web standard--in the company's products. "XML is a foundation piece for an increasing amount of work we're doing," he said.
Gates reaffirmed the company's commitment to move to a common software base following the release of the Windows 2000 operating system, formerly known as Windows NT 5.0. "That product is the foundation for future work, he said.
Microsoft's Internet Explorer launch was beamed over the Web and via satellite.