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What does IE 5 bring to the table?

Just when the browser wars seemed to be coming to a close, the battlefield is undergoing a new seismic shift.

Just when the browser wars seemed to be coming to a close, the battlefield is undergoing a new seismic shift.

As Microsoft launches version 5 of its Internet Explorer browser today, it faces a competitive landscape significantly altered by legal, technological, and strategic developments.

On the legal front, the tactics that fueled its wildly successful assault on the browser market have gotten Microsoft into serious trouble in a federal antitrust trial. Technologically, IE has outstripped its rival, Netscape's Communicator browsing suite with the Navigator browser; but open source development could propel Communicator in its race to catch up.

Perhaps most importantly, IE's single largest customer, America Online, is on the verge of acquiring the competition.

Microsoft all but declared victory in the browser war after a September study showed Netscape slipping below majority status for the first time. Counting America Online-branded versions of IE, Explorer edged out Communicator by a hair, 43.8 percent to 41.5 percent.

But the browser market is not homogenous, and subsequent studies showed a wide fluctuation in share depending on which market is studied. For example, surveys from the same period showed Communicator not only still ahead but increasing its lead among corporate users. Still other analysts pointed out that if small businesses were counted, Navigator lagged behind.

The importance of the corporate market is underscored by Microsoft's aggressive courting of it.

NEW FEATURES
"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
Autocompletion:
Extended from address bar to Web forms, but watch your password!
IntelliSense:
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
Microsoft last week said that firms including Compaq Computer, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and Ernst & Young were planning to use IE 5. Together those customer "wins" represent more than 300,000 desktops, according to Microsoft.

But Netscape has thrown a couple of massive monkey wrenches into the machinery of Microsoft's onslaught. The most recent of these, and most immediately relevant to market share, is its deal to be acquired by AOL.

AOL won't switch--yet
On announcing the acquisition, which involves a strategic alliance with Sun Microsystems, AOL chief executive Steve Case said that AOL would continue to use Internet Explorer as its client even after it owned Communicator. Case cited strategic reasons having to do with placement on the Windows desktop for that decision.

But analysts and others close to Netscape question that reasoning and cite other reasons for Case's decision to stick with IE--a decision they say is only temporary.

The first of these reasons is that Communicator still has some catching up to do by way of technology before AOL can use it. First, AOL can use IE since IE 3.0 has had a "componentized" architecture, meaning that third-party developers can build on individual components, for instance just the browsing engine. Communicator has componentization in its future, but not until version 5.0, which will be released toward the end of the year.

The second reason AOL does not want to immediately embrace Communicator, sources close to Netscape speculate, is that doing so would lend credence to Microsoft's argument in the antitrust trial against the company that the Internet market is fluid and Microsoft's competitive advantage is by no means assured. If AOL is going to take a sizeable chunk out of Microsoft's market share, this strategic scenario goes, it doesn't make sense to do so until after the government has concluded its case.

The third reason AOL is likely to keep IE for the foreseeable future is that the world's largest Internet service provider just last summer launched its massive campaign to get users to switch to AOL version 4.0. With a mostly low-tech constituency loathe to upgrade, AOL is unlikely to push a browser change sooner than absolutely necessary.

So for the mean time, AOL's approximately 16 percent of the browser market remains in IE's court--but Microsoft can hardly count on keeping it.

The meaning of Mozilla.org
Another radical move by Netscape to shake up the browser landscape came more than a year ago when the company decided to publish the source code to its browser and create the Mozilla.org group to shepherd the global volunteer development of the code. Netscape also made its browser free of charge at that time, bringing its pricing in line with Microsoft's.

While the first products of the Mozilla effort have barely come to light--a developer preview of the Version 5 "Gecko" browser engine was released in December--Netscape is betting that the open source model will accelerate and bolster development.

IE5 screenshot The firm has pointed out that in an open source effort, the coders working on the browser are often the same people who devised the technologies in the first place. And for sheer numbers, no company can hire the number of developers that will flock to a high-profile project like Mozilla.

Browser standards
But Netscape's bold development move has yet to pay off, and IE remains clearly ahead of Communicator on a number of crucial technological fronts. In addition to the important componentization factor, Microsoft has taken the lead on support for some key Web standards, including Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), Extensible Markup Language (XML, and the Document Object Model (DOM).

Despite its lead on standards, however, IE 5 launches to a chorus of complaints from the advocacy group Web Standards Project, which has been a thorn in the side of both browser makers since it launched in August of last year with the goal of pressure firms to hew more closely to standards.

"All in all, while IE5 is a major improvement over IE4, it still falls short, sometimes significantly, in fully supporting standards that are crucial to the continued evolution of the Web," said WSP project leader George Olsen in an email to News.com. "We realize MS has marketing concerns in choosing release dates, but we wish they'd chosen to follow the example of Netscape, which, according to press reports, is delaying Communicator 5.0's release to focus on getting standards support done right."

The WSP cited layout problems with IE 5's implementation of HTML 4.0 and CSS 1, along with problems with the DOM that it said will require developers to prepare "extensive workarounds" to get Dynamic HTML (DHTML) effects.

"Microsoft has told us they are supporting most of DOM," Olsen wrote. "But I'm having a hard time squaring that with test suites showing numerous tags aren't supported."

The WSP claims the IE 5 falls down on some basic XML parsing tasks and that the implementation of XML namespaces "violates both the spirit and the letter of that specification--one of whose co-editors is from Microsoft."

The group also faulted IE 5 for opting for Extensible Stylesheet Language (XSL) over CSS when documents support both specifications. "This is totally unacceptable given that CSS has been a stable standard since 1996, and XSL is still very far from being finished," Olsen wrote. "IE 5's XSL is an interesting and powerful feature, but it is neither standards-conformant nor interoperable."

Microsoft replies
Microsoft has a tendency to go ballistic when criticized for its browser's standard support, pointing out what even critics concede: IE has been way out in front in supporting standards.

"It's ironic that people are challenging our standards support when we have led by a substantial margin in this area since IE 4," said Windows product manager Mike Nichols in response to the WSP's criticisms. "We're talking 90 percent compliance versus 50 to 60 percent or nothing in case of XML with our competitors. The question I would ask people is where is everybody else with the DOM, with XML, with CSS-2?"

One analyst chimed in to support Microsoft's position that IE 5 is on top of the standards heap, and stressed that standards compliance will spur the growth of the Web.

"Web developers' life is never going to become less complicated, and it's never going to become more manageable," said David Kerley, analyst at Jupiter Communications.

"But Microsoft has reached the highest level of support for those standards, and that will be a huge benefit to developers of Web sites. I think that's been understated. The mutual support on these standards is going to allow for almost a whole new level of interfaces for consumer-targed sites that were just unmanageable to create and support in the past."

On to portals
While the sparring over technology and market share continues, both Microsoft and Netscape appear to be shifting the entire debate. As Netscape has hemorrhaged market share, it has thrown its energies behind server-side software and its Netcenter portal site. Now Netscape claims the browser war is irrelevant. Now, according to Netscape, it's a portal war.

Microsoft does not disagree. But the two companies are staking out opposing positions on how the browser becomes a weapon in the new war. While Netscape has rolled out numerous features that integrate Communicator with Netcenter, Microsoft with IE 5 is taking a more catholic approach. With its Web Accessories feature, any portal or other content site can build an extention to IE 5 that will serve up live content--like headlines, email notifications, or stock quotes--no matter where the user surfs.

In an ironic twist, Microsoft and Netscape have traded places in their long-fought war over "openness." Netscape cried foul when Microsoft integrated its browser with its operating system; now Microsoft disparages Netscape's integration of its browser and portal. And while Netscape points proudly to its worldwide army of developers building Communicator, Microsoft lists a parade of portals preparing to build extensions to IE. Both see strength in numbers.

As Netscape ceases to exist as an independent company, the browser war may be over, or the portal wars may just have begun in earnest. In coming months AOL will assess its arsenal, newly fortified, and the federal government may substantially alter Microsoft's. Whatever the battle, the competitive landscape greeting IE 6 is bound to be substantially altered.