Not so long ago, Microsoft viewed its browser as being so key to its success that it went to court with the Department of Justice over the company's rights to bundle it with the Windows operating system. With Microsoft's marketing might behind it, and a price tag of free, IE quickly grew to eclipse Netscape's Navigator as the No. 1 browser in market share.
Now, while Microsoft is continuing to add new features and functions to IE, there is much rethinking internally at the company about how and where to position the product, according to a variety of industry sources close to Microsoft.
That's in part because IE isn't Microsoft's only browser. There's also the more consumer-oriented MSN Explorer, launched last October. And on the drawing books is the more "knowledge worker"-type interface that Microsoft is designing into its stealth Netdocs product.
"MSN Explorer is being positioned as the premier platform for the consumer. Netdocs is being positioned as the business platform with a business browser. So there's no room left for IE," said a source close to Microsoft. "It's being squeezed."
No stand-alone IE 6.0?
IE 6.0, the newest version of Microsoft's browser, still has yet to be released officially in a "beta" test form. A technical preview of IE 6.0 went to a subset of testers who signed nondisclosure agreements last fall. And beta testers of Microsoft's next version of Windows, code-named Whistler, also are dabbling with a technical preview of IE 6.0 integrated into Whistler.
The first widespread beta of IE 6.0 will occur simultaneously with the release of Whistler beta 2, expected in February, according to sources close to the company.
But as it looks right now, Microsoft isn't planning to release a stand-alone beta of IE 6.0. And it is uncertain whether or not Microsoft will make even the final IE 6.0 code available as a separate, downloadable or CD-installable product.
Instead, sources said, Microsoft is strongly considering making IE 6.0 only available as part of Whistler.
A Microsoft representative declined to talk about IE 6.0, saying it was "too early to talk about features or deliverables."
A Microsoft representative said later that the company has no plans to make IE 6.0 available only as part of Whistler. "It's business as usual," she said, adding that Microsoft also will make IE 6.0 Beta 1 available for download separately.
But some at Microsoft are arguing IE should not be the default interface for all the flavors of Whistler Microsoft is developing, according to sources.
Microsoft is thought to be developing 32-bit Personal, Professional, Server, Advanced Server and Datacenter versions of Whistler, plus 64-bit versions of Advanced Server and Datacenter. The Personal and Professional versions of Whistler are expected to ship before the end of 2001, with the others to follow in 2001 to 2002.
Some involved with Windows development are said to be advocating that MSN Explorer, instead of IE, be included as the integrated browser for the Personal release of Whistler, which is aimed at consumers. There is also a push by some to make the Netdocs interface the default on the business-oriented Professional Whistler.
Netdocs, which is shaping up to be a competitor to Microsoft Office, is expected to be a single, integrated application that will include a full suite of functions, including e-mail, personal information management, document-authoring tools, digital media management, and instant messaging. Microsoft is expected to make Netdocs available in the next year or two, only as a hosted service over the Internet, not as a shrink-wrapped application or software preloaded on the PC. The Netdocs interface is based on a piece of Microsoft's .Net technology known as the "Universal Canvas."
But there could be resistance to these plans--at least the MSN Explorer idea--by some of the more technical consumers. A number of these techies believe Microsoft has gone too far to make Windows palatable to new consumers.
"In some ways, Whistler Personal is the OS (operating system) they should have come out with in 1995," said one Whistler tester, who requested anonymity. "In this day and age, enough people are comfortable with their PC that these performance and productivity-sapping 'improvements' are going to be seen as offensive. It's like the Office Paperclip team took over the Whistler Personal project!" The so-called Clippy feature was an animated help system reviled by many consumers.
Another Whistler tester, who also requested anonymity, said that with Whistler Personal beta build 2410, Microsoft added the MSN Explorer icon to the desktop but left IE 6.0 as the default interface.
"Advanced users like me will just go to IE 6.0 because we can't stand the MSN Explorer interface," said the tester. "It's clear that Personal is being aimed at consumers like my mom who don't have a clue about computers and just want to get e-mail and do some simple tasks."
Browsers for all seasons
Microsoft markets IE as the browser for more computer-savvy consumers and MSN Explorer as the interface for newer customers. Microsoft offers IE as both an integrated element of its Windows Millennium Edition and Windows 2000 products and as a stand-alone product. MSN Explorer is the front-end for Microsoft's MSN Internet service.
IE 6.0, according to the Windows enthusiast Web site ActiveWin, will include a number of user-interface enhancements as well as compliance with several critical Worldwide Web Consortium standards.
ActiveWin has cited technical beta testers as saying the next-generation browser will include built-in Explorer bars such as the Media Bar, which will provide access to Windows Media Player as an integrated part of the browsing experience. It also will include a "My Pictures" area for viewing, saving and mailing photos over the Internet. Microsoft also is integrating new dynamic HTML features for content developers as well as support for the Cascading Style Sheets 1 (CSS1) and Document Object Model (DOM) Level 1 standards.
MSN Explorer, the most recent version of which Microsoft launched last fall, looks like a combination browser and portal. MSN Explorer integrates Hotmail, MSN Messenger, MSN Calendar, MSN eShop Windows Media Player and MoneyCentral into a single interface. MSN Explorer competes with America Online's AOL 6.0.