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Explorer: the next generation

Microsoft ended a conference on its Web browser by giving journalists a peek of the next one: Internet Explorer 4.0.

BELLEVUE, Washington--Microsoft today concluded a two-day conference on its current Web browser by giving journalists a view of the next one: Internet Explorer 4.0.

Version 4.0, formerly code-named Nashville, will make over the graphical user interface of Windows 95 and Windows NT into what looks and acts like a Web browser. The new version will effectively blur the difference between users' experience browsing the Web and searching a hard disk.

Microsoft demonstrated how Internet Explorer 4.0, due out in beta form by the end of the year, will allow users to browse local and LAN files and directories as a series of customizable Web pages that can be spruced up with Java applets and ActiveX controls. The new browser will also give users a map of these pages displayed as a set hierarchical, but hyperlinked files.

Although users will be able to retain the current Windows interface if they want to, Internet Explorer 4.0 is an indication of the extent to which browsers such as Netscape Communications' Navigator have changed Microsoft's concept of operating systems.

Analysts were impressed by Microsoft's extension of the Web-browsing metaphor to PC information. "It's a bonafide innovation," said Ira Machefsky, industry analyst at Giga Information Group. "It takes [Windows] a step beyond the Mac."

Internet Explorer 4.0 could also provide Net content providers with a powerful new way to "push" information such as news feeds to users' desktops, instead of requiring users to visit Web sites of their own accord--a concept Microsoft officials refer to as the Active Desktop. Today, the company showed how Web sites will be able to use ActiveX controls to provide regular information updates to a desktop PC linked to the Net via dedicated or dial-up connections.

A start-up called PointCast has pioneered this "push" method of delivering Net information to desktops with a stand-alone Web browser that offers information "channels" with stock feeds and news headlines, all delivered with the ads that keep the company in business.

One manifestation of this in Microsoft's future products might be information "themes" for Internet Explorer 4.0. For example, a user could install a sports desktop or a business desktop just as they currently choose between aesthetic themes for their wallpaper. Microsoft declined to name, however, specific information partners that might offer such themes, although the company did demonstrate news feeds from MSNBC and the Nature Conservancy.

Microsoft also showed how Internet Explorer will incorporate offline browsing capabilities to let users capture selected Web pages or entire sites for viewing when disconnected from a network. Currently, a number of offline browsers, such as FreeLoader and WebEx (formerly Milktruck Delivery), act as companion applications to standard Web browsers like Navigator and Explorer.

But Microsoft's exploration into new technology territory is threatening to uncover an old accusation of anti-competitive business practices. Observers today, for example, questioned whether Microsoft's integration of standard Web and offline browsing into its OS, as well as PointCast-style capabilities, would unfairly hurt other companies who offer standalone versions of these kinds of products.

Microsoft's response, as it has been in the past, was that it must innovate to survive itself and that its Internet-savvy OS will give smaller vendors new business opportunities.

"Some capabilities get integrated with the platform because it enhances users' experience," said Paul Maritz, group vice president for Microsoft's Internet division. "This whole business is a dynamic business. It evolves all the time. We go out of our way to give people ample warning, ample information so they can be prepared and take advantage of the new opportunities that this gives them."