Just two months after the initial release of Internet Explorer 4.0, Microsoft today issued an upgrade to the browser that fixes several known problems and also adds "accessibility features," such as enlarged fonts, to help disabled users.
IE 4.0 has suffered several bugs and glitches since its release, many of which Microsoft says are fixable with upgrades to other parts of a user's system. For example, NT 4.0 users must install a service pack before installing IE 4.0 and must not install the final browser over the beta version.
But today's upgrade also addresses a major IE 4.0 bug that turned a user's PC desktop blank once the software was installed and the system rebooted.
"It only affected specific classes of machines," said Internet Explorer product manager Dave Fester. "There were not general bug problems across the board for everyone."
At least one line of PCs, the Compaq Presario, was affected by a similar reboot bug. Other than Compaq, Fester would not specifically name machines affected by IE 4.0 installation problems.
IE 4.01 also will reset a default to speed up performance. Users have complained that dragging windows in IE 4.0 slowed down their PCs. IE 4.01 will ship with the "View Window Contents While Dragging" option deselected.
IE 4.01 fixes many other problems, including those reported by NEWS.COM in the past two months. Microsoft's Fester also referred to a CNET.COM article about IE 4.0 bugs and said anything listed there would be fixed unless the remedy was dependent on third-party hardware and software upgrades.
Leading browser company Netscape Communications also was plagued by a series of glitches in the months following the release of its Communicator software suite, which includes the 4.x version of the Navigator browser.
Buggy software not only can pose a security threat--at least theoretically--but is also a hassle for users. Corporate managers are obliged to update their employees' desktops, often by the hundreds or thousands, while home users with limited bandwidth must wait through long download times if the upgrade requires not just a patch but an entirely new version of the software, as is the case with IE 4.01.
"I no longer understand what it means to 'release software' in the era of the Internet," said analyst Ira Machefsky of the Giga Information Group. "It's basically a continual release mode without much line between beta and final release."
Machefsky estimated that there are two or three security bugs per major release of browser software from either Microsoft or Netscape, not including performance and reliability fixes.
In addition to the bug fixes, IE 4.01 incorporates features that make it easier for disabled people to use the browser. Many of these features were available in IE 3.0 but didn't make it into the initial 4.0 release.
"We frankly just didn't get it done," said Fester.
One improvement is full-keyboard access to items not just in the browser but also within the desktop if the user has the standard or full-install version of IE 4.01. Microsoft also has improved the browser for vision-impaired users with full-screen HTML help, for example. However, some IE 3.0 accessibility features are not feasible in IE 4.x, including keyboard access to many ActiveX controls. A Microsoft document released today stated that these problems would be addressed in IE 5.0 but did not give a timetable.
IE 4.01 is available in three versions: browser-only (13 MB), standard (16 MB), and full (25 MB). The disk space needed for installation is much greater--56 MB for browser-only, 72 MB for standard, and 98 MB for full.
"Browser-only" does not include the Active Desktop feature, which lets users add applets such as stock tickers to the desktop wallpaper. "Standard" adds the Outlook Express email client, Active Desktop, and the Wallet e-commerce utility. "Full" adds the NetMeeting videoconferencing package, the NetShow streaming media client, and Web publishing and chat tools.