With Explorer 3.0, Microsoft has worked frenetically to match Netscape Communications' Navigator feature for feature. The company will make a concerted effort to bolster the popularity of Internet Explorer through promotional offers and distribution deals with Web site publishers, software developers, and Internet service providers.
But Netscape won't take Microsoft's latest offensive lying down. The company today announced that it will release the final version of Navigator 3.0 on Monday and, in the meantime, is finalizing a number of alliances with Web content providers (see next story, Netscape punches back).
Last night, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates announced that the company has inked deals with a number of leading Web sites with for-pay services--including Wall Street Journal Interactive, ESPNET SportsZone, MTV, InvestorsEdge, and others--that will give Internet Explorer users free access to those services through the end of the year.
"We are priced to sell," Gates quipped.
The promotional offers amount to a roughly $400 value for Explorer users, according to Yusuf Mehdi, group product manager for Internet Explorer.
"Microsoft seems to be telling [Netscape], 'You want to play the retail game, we'll show you how,'" said Chris Le Tocq, analyst at research firm Dataquest. "[Microsoft] will pay good money to win this game," he added.
Microsoft also highlighted developer interest in its ActiveX architecture and showcased a number of Web sites, including CNET and ESPNET SportsZone, that are "activating" their Web sites by incorporating snazzy new graphics and multimedia through ActiveX controls.
Although current beta testers of Explorer 3.0 are already familiar with the new browser's list of features by now, Microsoft has at least a couple of surprises up its sleeve for the final version, which it posted at midnight last night: support for 128-bit encryption and a new search feature built into the browser.
The beefed-up encryption will further close the gap between the feature's of Navigator and Internet Explorer, allowing users to establish secure connections with Web sites that are more difficult to "crack" by code-breakers.
The new search feature in the browser, called AutoSearch, will allow users to enter queries directly into the Address window at the top of the browser, instead of having to navigate to an Internet search engine, such as Lycos or AltaVista.
With AutoSearch, a user will be able to trigger a query by typing into the browser's Address window either "find," "go," or "?" and then the keyword to for which to search. Internet Explorer will then return a list of Web sites that came in the search's results.
AutoSearch piggybacks on an existing Net search engine, Yahoo. Microsoft officials declined to describe the terms of its deal with Yahoo, but officials left open the possibility that other search engines could show up as part of AutoSearch.
Microsoft's rival Netscape mulled plans to incorporate comparable search capabilities into version 3.0 of its Navigator browser, but the company yanked the feature from an earlier beta release when it didn't pass muster with testers, said Bob Lisbonne, vice president of client product marketing at Netscape.
Lisbonne denied reports that Netscape pulled the feature because of complaints from Net search engines, who feared the feature would reduce user visits to Netscape's Net Search site. The top five search engines on the Net pay $5 million apiece for positions on the heavily-trafficked Net Search site.
"We always have features in a beta version of the product that don't show up later," said Lisbonne. "When we did usability testing, [the search feature] was not up to our standards for ease of use."
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