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IE 5 sneak peek shows new content features

When Microsoft unwraps Internet Explorer 5 Thursday, it will be showing off a browser with some new ideas on how to present Web content.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
7 min read
When Microsoft unwraps Internet Explorer 5 Thursday with fanfare and festivities at headquarters in Redmond, Washington, it will be showing off a browser with some new ideas on how to present Web content along with one or two others borrowed from the competition.

A copy of the new browser obtained by CNET News.com includes the innovations included in the IE 5 public beta, which Microsoft launched in November. It also comes with a few new bells and whistles first reported last month, along with a few surprises. (Download the new version of IE 5 here.)

One of the major new features of IE 5 is its "Web Accessories" initiative. Web Accessories let third-party Web sites build extensions to the browser interface and serve, or "push," content to a separate pane no matter where the user surfs.

With Web Accessories, Microsoft appears to be making a play for the portals, among other content providers, which can use the feature to keep users informed of their mail, news, stock quotes, and other information. While portal sites are likely to support all major browsers in order to maintain as wide a reach as possible, they could plug IE if they were pushing information through Web Accessories.

As of November's beta launch, Microsoft had signed on Alexa Internet, Bloomberg Financial Markets, The New York Times on the Web, and Microsoft's own MSN portal site to use content extensions. Bloomberg (a content partner of CNET News.com) planned to use the feature to deliver stock quotes and financial news. MSN planned to provide access to MSN services and information including email, stock quotes, and news.

Another firm planning to use the extensions is streaming media player provider Real Networks. Real Thursday will announce that it will use Web Accessories to link to its RealGuide multimedia content listings, according to sources familiar with the company's plans.

Web Accessories will also differentiate Microsoft's portal strategy from that of Netscape Communications, which has been tightening integration between its browser and its Netcenter portal site.

"We've taken a decidedly different view from Netscape, which is being acquired by AOL, and has

"Web Accessories":
Lets third-party Web sites push content to separate pane
Related links:
Shows related sites using Alexa Internet technology, a catch-up move to Navigator 4.06
Expanded search:
Users can search range of categories from browser and customize search options
Radio bar:
Allows users to adjust stations, volume while they surf
Hotmail integration:
Heavily promoted and readily accessible throughout IE and Outlook Express
Extended from address bar to Web forms, but watch your password!
Expands content synchronization for offline browsing, plus other autocompletion and autocorrection features
History and favorites:
Now manageable directly through browser pane
Faster and more stable:
Microsoft claims, but analysts are backing them up
"Go" button:
Helps Mom find your home page
all the portal integration where they push to Netcenter," said Mike Nichols, Microsoft's product manager for the Windows operating system. "We're taking things in a different direction. We think integration with other applications is really powerful, but that you need to do in way that customers have choice."

Netscape may have borrowed a page from Web Accessories with its recently announced My Netscape Network, which lets third-party Web sites push headlines and other live information to My Netscape personalized pages.

IE expands searching options with Alexa feature
In another area, Microsoft is following in Netscape's footsteps. With the 4.5 version of Communicator, Netscape added a "What's Related" button, powered by Alexa Internet, which generates a list of related Web sites from any Web page. Now Microsoft has one too.

Labeled "Show related links" and found under the "tools" menu, the feature shows its results in a left-hand pane where IE 5 shows favorites, history, and Web search results as well.

IE 5 has expanded search capabilities and allows users to customize their search options. In one sense, these options presented from within the browser interface make the browser more resemble a portal, since those sites often offer a range of search choices.

For finding a Web page, users can choose from among eight different search services: Infoseek, AltaVista, Lycos, GoTo, Excite, Yahoo, Microsoft's own MSN, and, for the benefit of IE's continental constituency, Euroseek.

For email address searches, Microsoft's IE partners are InfoSpace and Bigfoot. For mailing addresses, those two are joined by WorldPages.

InfoSpace, WorldPages, and Microsoft's Sidewalk provide results for searches for firms. MapQuest and Microsoft's ExpediaMaps provide maps through the search feature. Microsoft's Encarta provides search results from the encyclopedia, and Dejanews powers newsgroup queries.

Radio bar and Hotmail integration
One major alteration to the IE interface reported last month but not previously confirmed by Microsoft is a new radio bar that sits directly beneath the address bar. The radio bar features a play/stop button, a mute button, a volume dial, and a drop-down menu that lets users add a radio station to their "favorites" list or access Microsoft's WebEvents Radio page.

Another feature reported last month that Microsoft declined to confirm is tighter integration between IE 5 and MSN Hotmail, Microsoft's free Web-based email site. Links to Hotmail are planted throughout the browser (for instance in a toolbar menu item labeled "free hotmail") and the updated email client, Outlook Express. Users can specify Hotmail as one of their email servers in OE, though News.com was unable to make this feature succeed in downloading Hotmail messages. The OE interface now has a color advertisement and link to Hotmail as well.

IE's pushing Hotmail so aggressively comes as no surprise, as Microsoft makes big plans to offer new services through the site, which has more than 30 million registered users. Microsoft plans to add applications including calendaring, text file storage, and others.

IntelliSense and autocompletion
One hold-over feature from the IE 5 beta that has raised some concern is Microsoft's extension of autocompletion to Web forms. Autocompletion in the address bar is a common feature among previous generations of browsers by Microsoft and its competitors, but autocompletion in forms raises some security questions because the browser remembers and autocompletes not just URLs but user names, passwords, credit card numbers, and other sensitive information.

Microsoft's Nichols downplayed the security hazard of the new feature, stressing that it is turned off by default and that those who use shared computers can choose not to turn it on.

Autocomplete is powered by IntelliSense, a Microsoft technology implemented in products including the Office suite, the Visual Basic tool, and Visual C++. With IntelliSense, IE also detects whether the computer is online or offline, and expands content-synchronization for offline browsing.

IntelliSense also offers users suggestions when they begin typing in a URL, offering a drop-down box with a list of recently accessed sites that match the first few characters entered. IE 5 also corrects bad syntax in URLs.

More automation features announced with the beta 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.

IE 5 is a sizable download, topping 100MB in its full version uncompressed. But Microsoft has isolated the barebones browser for everyday use and added a feature that automatically adds various technologies on an as-needed basis.

For example, the minimal version of IE 5 does not support Sun Microsystems' Java programming language, but when faced with a site built with Java the browser will fetch a Java Virtual Machine, which is required to display that content. The browser will uninstall the JVM once it is no longer needed in order to speed performance.

Faster and more stable, Microsoft says
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 button is for users who don't know to hit return after typing an address.

One curious change in IE 5 is that the IE logo in the upper right hand corner is now a static graphic instead of a live link to Microsoft's Web properties.

While Microsoft declined to comment on unannounced features of the new browser, the company did confirm that it had removed one aspect that had earned it an injunction from a California state judge. The feature had been filtering out electronic greeting card notifications by Blue Mountain Arts, which sued Microsoft for allegedly harming its business unfairly.

Microsoft said it improved performance with IE 5, and at least one independent analyst agreed.

"I'm not sure how they've achieved the speed gains that they have, but between IE 4 and IE 5 there's a noticeable speed increase," said Jupiter Communications analyst David Kerley.

Kerley also called the browser more stable.

"It's probably the most stable browser that Microsoft has ever released," Kerley said. "I haven't even been able to make it crash, and that's very cool."

Kerley also praised IE 5's handling of history and favorites. Now IE 5 users can organize and edit the favorites directly in the browser frame, where they have appeared in previous versions.