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New Internet Explorer tested

Taking a page from Netscape, Microsoft's newest browser focuses on simplicity and integration with Web sites.

Appearing to borrow a couple of pages from Netscape's playbook, Microsoft today released a beta version of its Internet Explorer browser that focuses on simplicity and integration with Web sites.

But beyond this apparent similarity, the companies' strategies diverge. While recent versions of Navigator are married to Netscape's own Web property, IE 5 is taking a little more promiscuous approach, inviting Web content providers to integrate their sites with IE and offering users an array of choices for search and navigation.

With the first public beta release of IE 5--the browser already has been previewed to Web developers and to hardware and software vendors--Microsoft is launching its "Internet Explorer Web Accessories" initiative. Under the Web Accessories program, portals and other content sites can build extensions to the browser interface to serve content continuously regardless of where the user surfs.

Appearing in a separate pane from the main browser window, these extensions can serve up content--and advertisements--without interruption. This feature could make IE 5 an invaluable tool for content providers eager to keep the definitionally jumpy eyeballs of Web surfers trained on their content and ads.

So far, Microsoft has signed on Alexa Internet, Bloomberg Financial Markets, The New York Times on the Web, and Microsoft's own MSN portal site to utilize the accessories extensions.

Bloomberg (a content partner of CNET will use the feature to deliver up-to-the-minute stock quotes and financial news. MSN will provide access to MSN services and information including Web-based email, stock quotes, and news.

Another feature intended to bring IE 5 and portal and content sites closer together lets users change their home page in one step.

Netscape has been integrating Navigator with its Netcenter portal site in a variety of ways, resolving search requests to Netcenter search and directory pages, including a link to Netcenter's personalization feature on the Navigator toolbar, and making it easier for users to specify Netcenter as their home page.

IE 5 will present a selection of search options when users perform keyword searches from within the browser, offering choices of what kind of database to search (Web, newsgroup) as well as whose search engine to use.

With IE 5, the search button yields a separate pane that lists the various search options. Keyword searches will call up the browser's best-guess site in the browsing window and a list of searching options in the search pane. The search pane performs the same search in the various search engines with one click and without the user's having to re-enter the keyword.

Another focus of the IE 5 launch that recalls recent Navigator campaigns is ease-of-use.

With IE 5, Microsoft has incorporated into the browser a group of automation technologies, known as IntelliSense, that are already found in other Microsoft products including the Office suite, the Visual Basic tool, and Visual C++. IntelliSense will detect whether the computer is online or offline, extend autocompletion to more areas of browsing, and expand content-synchronization for offline browsing.

In one instance sure to raise the eyebrows, if not the hackles, of security mavens, when IE 5 autocompletes a user name for a Web site, it automatically inserts the passwords. But in response to the security hazard such a feature raises, especially for computers with multiple users, computers that aren't physically secured, or computers that are lost or stolen, Microsoft points out that it can be disabled.

Further, address bar autocompletion is expanded in IE 5. When users type in a URL, a drop-down box appears with a list of recently accessed sites that match the first few characters entered. Users can navigate and choose from this list using the arrow keys. Autocompletion also works for plain-word named "Favorites" sites.

URLs entered with bad syntax are autocorrected in IE 5.

Other automation features let users synchronize email and cached Web content at set times for surfing offline. For example, an IE 5 user could set browser to update email and site content each time he or she logs off, or at a particular time of day.

Version 5.0, which in its minimal version does not support Java, will automatically detect when a site requires a Java Virtual Machine, and download it. The browser also will uninstall the JVM once it is no longer needed, in order to speed performance.

Version 5.0 provides better support than its predecessor for World Wide Web Consortium standards including Extensible Markup Language 1.0, Extensible Style Language, Cascading Style Sheets 1.0 and 2.0, the Document Object Model, most of HTML 4.0, and Microsoft's own proposal to the W3C called HTML Behaviors.

Adherence to W3C recommendations has been a thorn in the side of both Microsoft and Netscape, as developers agitate for more standards compliance. Yesterday, the Web Standards Project announced its report detailing the top ten problems IE 4 has with Cascading Style Sheets.

"We realize the next version of Internet Explorer is still in beta and hope that these problems will be fixed by the final release so that Explorer will be 100 percent compliant with CSS-1," said WSP project leader George Olsen in a statement. "Especially since Microsoft has been spending development time adding non-standard extensions to CSS in their beta releases so far."

Microsoft's director of Windows marketing, Yusuf Mehdi, defended the company's record on standards support.

"Since IE 3.0 we pledged to support Internet standards and our track record on IE3, IE4, and now IE5 demonstrates a number of things," he said. "We are the leader in implementing Internet standards and provide a significantly greater degree of support than any other browser vendor by a large margin.

"On CSS-1 we now have virtually 100 percent support for the standard in the IE 5 beta. We have pledged to not implement a proprietary approach when a W3C standard exists," Mehhi observed.

But Olsen today blasted the newly released beta's CSS support.

"I ran IE5 beta through the tests this morning and it still fails most of them, some quite badly." Olsen said.

The browser has played to enthusiastic beta testers so far, Mehdi added.

"More beta testers wanted to upgrade to IE 5 than to any other previous version," he said. "This was surprising because IE 4 had more new features."

Microsoft's focus groups demanded simplicity above all other qualities, according to Mehdi. To that end, Microsoft added one small feature aimed at novice users, a "Go" button, borrowed from America Online's interface. Place to the right of the address bar, the "Go" button is for users who don't know to hit return after typing an address.

Microsoft is working on a Mac version of the IE beta; today's release will be for the Win 32 and 16 platforms, as well as Unix (Sun Solaris). The Mac version may be released as a 4.5 version, depending on how quickly the new functionality can be incorporated, Mehdi said.

Microsoft expects to have a shipping version of IE 5 for all platforms except the Macintosh by next quarter.