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Leaders of the Pack

By James E. Powell, Northwest Editor

Is the Web big enough for two major browsers? Here's how Microsoft and Netscape are vying for your surf time.

If there's one application that's a must-have for your desktop in the late '90s, it's a Web browser. And Netscape and Microsoft are going to see to it that you get one. Netscape, of course, wants you to choose Navigator. Microsoft, no surprise, is pushing its Internet Explorer. New versions of each have just hit the streets, and the technology continues to change at a breakneck pace.

Which will serve your needs best? That depends--and our discussions of each later in this section should help you decide. But before we get down to the nitty-gritty of these two best sellers, let's take a look at the forces driving the market and the technology.

The respective market shares of each program tell part of the story. Netscape commands about 80 percent of the market with Navigator, largely due to its cross-platform compatibility. Internet Explorer still lags far behind with its 10 percent market share, but it's moving up quickly thanks to Microsoft's strategy of giving it away free. That's a major consideration for large corporations, where even a small per-seat license fee can add up to big bucks.

Numerous other browsers split the rest of the market. Many Internet service providers (ISPs) offer their own proprietary browsers; there are also several versions of Mosaic that are fairly popular.

What's New?

Less than a year ago, browsers focused mainly on how things looked. Frames, tables, font support and scrolling text were just a few of the features that distinguished Navigator and IE from the rest of the crowd.

Recent technological advances enable developers to make Web pages both more interactive and more interesting. Last year, Netscape 2.0 began to offer plug-ins for added functionality, such as listening to linked sounds with Real Audio and watching animation with Shockwave. Shortly thereafter, the company incorporated Java and JavaScript enhancements, dynamic images and detection of plug-ins. The newest release, version 3.0, goes even further by permitting plug-ins, Java applets and JavaScript to communicate with one another--allowing a Java applet, for example, to feed information to a Java script.

Internet Explorer 3.0's new features include VBScript (based on Visual Basic) as well as support for Netscape and Sun's JavaScript, offering a strong riposte to Netscape's challenge. Both types of script will change the look and functionality of an IE-specific Web page, allowing animations, Java-based forms, interactive applets and more.

Sound and video are making the Web a multimedia mecca. Netscape's multimedia plug-in formats include LiveAudio for playing embedded audio sounds, LiveVideo for .AVI files and VRML for touring through virtual worlds (see sidebar).

Meanwhile, Microsoft is talking about "active content"--you'll be able to view movies, animation, audio and interactive native-format documents as live components of Web pages. Using ActiveX technology (formerly known as OLE), authors can incorporate ActiveX-enabled documents (for example, QuickSilver business graphics, interactive multimedia or Excel spreadsheets) in their native formats, allowing users to actually interact with the document. For example, an authorized user could modify a spreadsheet and save the revision to the Web site for review by others in the group.

Some of the new features in both IE and Navigator seem similar. But the two companies view them very differently. Microsoft's aim is to make the browser an integrated, seamless part of the complete computing experience, rather than a separate app. Its Nashville upgrade to Windows 95 and NT will let you use the same interface Windows users know well--Explorer--for browing the Web and local drives. Expect to see Nashville before the end of the year.

Netscape, on the other hand, seems determined to push the envelope even further with Navigator, eventually building it up in power and functionality to become an operating system on its own.

So Much Technology, So Little Time

The price for all this rapid innovation is incompatibility. Even at the base level, both Netscape and Microsoft have taken liberties with the HTML standard, offering extensions to the language to push the envelope for Web authors. As a result, developers are often forced to write two sets of HTML code--a programming nightmare.

While the HTML 3.0 standard is awaiting approval, neither company is standing still. Cutting-edge Web pages often include this caveat: "This page is best viewed with Netscape Navigator 2.0." In many cases, these pages look awful if you're not running the specified browser. They can also be unintelligible. For example, columns may not align properly, scrambling information.

With the many and varied new additions to the standard complement of HTML markup, as well as the numerous plug-ins, applets and scripting languages, not every browser will support every feature. In other words, the choice is still yours.

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