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MS to co-opt Navigator plug-ins

While still heavily promoting its own OLE-based architecture for Internet browser plug-ins, Microsoft will hedge its bets with the next version of its Internet Explorer by adopting a plug-in standard from browser rival Netscape.

While still heavily promoting its own OLE-based architecture for Internet browser plug-ins, Microsoft will hedge its bets with the next version of its Internet Explorer by adopting a plug-in standard from browser rival Netscape.

In version 3.0 of Internet Explorer for Windows 95 due later this year, the Redmond, Washington-based company will support the Netscape Plug-In API, which allows users to run mini-applications such as spreadsheets or VRML viewers from within the browser, said Mike Ahern, Internet product manager at Microsoft. Version 3.0 will also add support for Java, JavaScript, frames, and other standard Navigator features.

Ahern would not say whether the API will be ready in time to make it into an alpha version of Explorer 3.0 that will be released to developers at next week's Professional Developer's Conference in San Francisco.

However, the company is already implementing the strategy for its Mac browser. Microsoft last week posted a beta version of Internet Explorer 2.0 for Macintosh on its Web site that supports the plug-in API.

Still on a mission to capture market share from Navigator, Microsoft officials are loathe to focus on the support for Netscape plug-ins. And Microsoft is still determined to out-do Netscape with its OLE custom controls (OCX) architecture--soon to be renamed Active Controls--that it says will allow more sophisticated applets than Navigator plug-ins.

"We don't think [Netscape] plug-ins will stick around for long," said Ahern. "But we're not going to limit ourselves [by not supporting it]. An OCX is much better than plug-ins. You can control them with scripts. A plug-in is like a standalone entity."

Regardless of capabilities, Netscape's plug-in architecture has a time advantage and has spawned a small but rapidly growing community of developers, including Macromedia and Adobe.

And some analysts say that comparing OCXs to Java applets rather than plug-ins is a more apt comparison. "OCXs are positioned against Java. That's where the battle royal will be fought," said Ira Machefsky, research analyst at Giga Information Group.

Still the decision to support plug-ins reflects Microsoft's determination to best Navigator. "It's an interesting concession from Microsoft. They're going to be very pragmatic in trying to catch up [to Nestcape]," said Machefsky.