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No rush to upgrade browsers

Although the browser makers such as Netscape and Microsoft offer incentives for updating, most surfers are in no hurry to do so.

Would you upgrade your browser in exchange for a shiny new BMW? How about a Reba McEntire CD?

These are some of the promotional giveaways companies are using to entice people to download the latest version of their Web-browsing software. The incentives reflect a problem common to most if not all software makers: Just because a company invents a better mousetrap doesn't mean consumers are going to rush out to get it, especially if they are already satisfied with what they have.

In fact, vendors face downright distrust in the marketplace from users wary of bugs and other time-consuming glitches that may accompany downloading new software, all in exchange for an upgrade that isn't significantly better than its predecessor.

"Newer doesn't necessarily mean better," wrote one NEWS.COM reader on the subject of such upgrades. "Upgrades are rarely a 'win-win' situation. With every bug fix or new 'feature' comes new bugs and a new learning curve. And sometimes many of the 'features' we find out later we could do without and never miss."

Vendors are not the only ones frustrated by the leisurely pace at which users update their browsers. The problem also is a constant source of distress for content developers who have to design their sites anticipating not only what brand of browser people are using, but also which version.

Browser makers are taking a variety of measures to speed the upgrade cycle of new software. One strategy involves offering flashy promotions to entice customers to update. Another has vendors building into the browser technology itself the means of updating software automatically.

Netscape Communications, for example, recently introduced its "Smart Update" feature, which is integrated into its Communicator 4.5 suite of Web software and its Netcenter portal site. Smart Update can identify what version of software a Netcenter visitor is using and subsequently recommend an update if one is needed.

A feature in Communicator 4.5 will make that updating process a more passive and automatic one than it is today. Instead of requiring users to run an installer, the system will write directly to the correct place on the hard drive.

"This is great for novice users," Netscape spokesperson Maggie Young said. "It saves you multiple steps, and you don't have to ask yourself, 'Should I write over the previous version?'"

Microsoft also has a technological trick up its sleeve to ease the updating process, one that aids content developers in preparing their sites for multiple browser versions. In Internet Explorer 5.0, Microsoft will add a feature called "client capabilities," which will let developers identify the browser of a Web site visitor and feed that browser content consistent with its capabilities.

If the browser supports ActiveX, for example, the site can choose to serve it content using that technology. If the browser does not have ActiveX, the user will be served a different version and won't know the difference.

On the promotional side, both companies employ tried-and-true marketing methods to hype their latest versions. Netscape has conducted contests and drawings, giving away everything from computers to luxury cars. The upcoming launch of Communicator 4.5 will be accompanied by a similar promotion, which Netscape is keeping under wraps.

Microsoft maintains a Web page to keep users updated on its promotional offers for Internet Explorer.

Lag time between introduction and adoption of new browser versions varies from update to update and from company to company. According to figures from International Data Corporation, 26.8 percent of Navigator users had upgraded to version 4.0 by the end of 1997. That compares to 31.8 percent of IE users who upgraded to version 4.0, despite Navigator's having beaten IE out of the gate by a matter of months.

Microsoft's advantage in that race was twofold, according to IDC analyst Joan-Carol Brigham. In the first place, IE was free while Netscape still charged for its browser through 1997. The second reason was Microsoft's promotional muscle.

"Microsoft is a marketing machine," Brigham said. "By the time IE 4 came out, they had a mind share, a level of visibility they'd developed throughout the entire year. Through releases and events, people were getting educated about the product and what it included, so when it went final, it was a no-brainer for people to update."

Brigham noted that people are starting to use browsers for tasks other than just Web surfing, such as calendaring and scheduling. But she also said that, by and large, people still use the software simply for surfing the Web, and downloading the latest and greatest upgrade is not a high priority.

"People are busy with other things," Brigham said. "People who don't get around to upgrading for six months are doing something else."

"Besides, the browser doesn't give them performance improvements," Brigham added. "And that's what people really want."