The software is Microsoft's attempt to make the browser wars irrelevant. By building IE 4.0 into Windows, Microsoft hopes to make the browser just another utility that comes with the operating system. That integration won't truly happen until Microsoft ships Windows 98 next year, but the release for Windows 95 is a major step in that direction.
Microsoft posted the long-awaited software on its Web site last night as it held a gala event in San Francisco to mark the release. Throughout the day yesterday, the site was jammed with traffic from users looking for the software, many unable to get in.
Twenty-four hours after opening the floodgates, Microsoft said it's still tallying the downloads from its own Web site and third-party sites that are offering IE 4.0.
The company boosted its site's download capacity to 6.1 terabytes, which would allow about 450,000 browser downloads a day, a spokeswoman said. Nonetheless, some users reported trouble getting into the site.
In anticipation of the rush, the company already had begun
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"IE 4 is a big, big thing for us," Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates said in an interview with CNET's NEWS.COM just before yesterday's launch. "With this release, we've been able to take all the feedback from IE 3 and do some pretty neat things with it."
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In addition, the company said that 20 major companies are standardizing on IE 4.0. Some of the companies include Compaq Computer, Columbia/HCA Healthcare, Countrywide Home Loans, Dell Computer, Deloitte & Touche, General Mills, Merrill Lynch, Monsanto, Reynolds Metals, Nabisco, Sprint PCS, Dow Chemical, and Toyota Motor Sales USA.
Now that Microsoft has garnered about 30 percent of the browser market, it is claiming that IE 4.0 will push it over the 50 percent mark. As a result, Netscape Communications (NSCP) has launched a campaign called "Netscape Everywhere" to defend its market stronghold, which researchers say hovers around 70 percent.
Consulting firm Zona Research released figures this week showing that Netscape's Navigator is used by 62 percent of 279 corporations interviewed, while Microsoft's Internet Explorer is used by 36 percent.
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With the inclusion of the IE browser in Windows, however, Microsoft hopes to exploit that same laziness: If Explorer is the default browser on every Windows machine, the company hopes that many users won't bother to download something else.
Microsoft and Netscape are going head to head in other marketing channels as well, signing deals with Internet service providers, corporations, government agencies, and third-party software companies to distribute one browser over the other to their customers.
Why is market share so important? Neither company draws huge revenue from browser sales. Internet Explorer is free; Netscape charges for Navigator but is looking increasingly toward server software for its revenues.
For Microsoft, IE use and eventual integration into Windows equals higher sales for its applications and content, according to Yusuf Mehdi, director of product marketing for the applications and Internet client group. It also is a means of protecting "open standards on the Internet," said Mehdi, who accused Netscape of adding "proprietary tags that make us beholden to using and paying for their browser."
Netscape, for its part, sees implementation of standards--even those that haven't been fully accepted--as a way to drive sales of its server software. "Standards in the client drive the development on the back end," said Dave Rothschild, director of client technology marketing at Netscape. "If your client supports IMAP, you're going to need a server that supports IMAP."
No one knows that better than Microsoft. In fact, the company has been previously accused of doing precisely what it says Netscape is doing now: implementing standards before they are truly open. "All their work with Dynamic HTML and their Java classes are Windows-specific," Robb said. "They add proprietary advancements that only work with IE 4."
Moreover, by driving mass adoption of their own browser technology and keeping it tied to Windows, Microsoft will be able to keep hold of its desktop dominance, he added.
"It seems Microsoft is taking the Internet and pasting it onto their existing structure," Robb noted. "That's not the approach that's going to win. Just like Apple wanted to keep everything under one roof--that caused their downfall."
Microsoft contended that its work will extend across platforms when IE 4.0 ships on Macintosh and Unix.
"We demonstrated Dynamic HTML running on Win32, Win3.1, Mac, Solaris, HP-UX, and Digital Unix last week at the Professional Developer Conference," said director of platform marketing Cornelius Willis. "We've also demoed our AFC Java classes on Mac, Windows, and Solaris in March. We have to prove ourselves by shipping product. But by doing these public demonstrations we are making very high-profile commitments to do so."
It remains to be seen how well users take to a computing environment where Web sites and local files alike are accessible through a browser. Initial reaction to the "Web View" desktop interface has been mixed; after receiving complaints, Microsoft has already decided to amend one Web View feature--the single mouse-click--by changing the default back to the original double-click.
Beyond the technology itself, Microsoft also faces possible regulatory obstacles from the federal government. The Justice Department is investigating the practice of bundling the browser with the operating system, but it is difficult to predict if the agency will declare any unfair business practices. A congressional subcommittee is also planning hearings on antitrust issues in the computer industry.
Microsoft has run into regulatory thickets in the past. It dropped its effort to merge with financial software maker Intuit in 1995 after the Justice Department opened an investigation of the proposed deal, and in 1994 the company agreed to stop issuing multiyear and per-processor licenses. It also agreed not to force PC makers to ship Microsoft applications with their Windows-based systems--although that practice, known as "tying," had not been a previous issue, according to Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray. (See related story)
Another problem that neither Microsoft nor Netscape has been able to shake is the perennial discovery of software bugs, which have ranged from annoying flaws to potentially dangerous security holes.
On the IE side, the ability to download and run ActiveX controls--small packages of executable code--gives users access to multimedia files. The controls take advantage of the underlying Windows technology to display their data, but this also allows someone to program a malicious control that, once downloaded from a Web site, can gain access to parts of a user's hardware. Because of this, Microsoft asks its users to rely on the "trust model," asking users not to download a control if they don't know or trust its creator.
Java applets can be written to do the same thing, but the Java Virtual Machine is set up to block their access to the hardware, a layer of protection commonly known as the "sandbox." Microsoft believes that the sandbox is too limiting and lets Java developers build applets that reach beyond it.
"The Java security model isn't advantageous for writing real applications that need system services," said Thomas Reardon, Microsoft program manager for Internet architecture. "The sandbox as implemented in [Sun's] Java development kit is useless."
Acknowledging the limitations, Sun Microsystems has begun to give Java applications constrained access to system resources.
Microsoft and many developers believe that the tradeoff--less security for wider use of native resources--is worth it. To bolster the trust model as much as possible, IE 4.0 lets an end user or system administrator set up finely grained "security zones" to protect against code downloaded from the Web or block access to certain domains entirely.
Still, users must continue to be vigilant about setting their security zones or careful when browsing unfamiliar sites.
Users and developers must also continue to be vigilant when comparing the feature sets of IE and Navigator. Both companies claim to be defenders of Internet standards but use the alphabet soup of technology acronyms to push their own, nonstandard technologies in their browsers.
Like CDF, much of the underlying technology in IE 4.0 has not yet been finalized as an Internet standard; other examples are the extensible markup language, or XML, and the HTML "object" tag. Nevertheless, Microsoft is willing to add an evolving implementation to its browser with the promise that it will revise it to accord with the final standard.
Netscape often plays the same game; yesterday, it promised to roll out a new product based on RDF, the resource definition framework, even though that technology has quite a ways to go before it becomes standardized.
"It's a delicate balancing act, and you have to make judgment calls on what state the standard process is," Netscape's Rothschild said. "There's a certain amount of risk developers have to be aware of that something could change."