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By Fred Langa, Editorial Director

New, improved versions of the Big Two browsers will have you shooting the tube in no time.

The new versions of Internet Explorer 3.0 and Netscape Navigator 3.0 are almost ready for prime time. Even in beta, both are state-of-the-art applications that sport dazzling new technologies to let you get more from your online time than ever before.

The number of similarities between the browsers is jaw-dropping. Here's just a partial list: Both support frames, tables and all HTML 3.x standards. Both support in-line video, sound and animation. Both let you use VRML to navigate through 3-D virtual worlds. Each comes with voice applets that let you use your audio peripherals to communicate with speech across the Net. Each one offers built-in security for online purchases and safer downloading, and even has a means to digitally authenticate both ends of a communication link. At release, they'll both run Java and JavaScript.

There are significant differences, however. Some are as simple and as obvious as your wallet--IE 3.0 will be free, but Navigator will cost around $50 to register once the beta test ends.

Other differences are more subtle. One example: Both Navigator and IE 3.0 let you collaborate with others using Web-based whiteboard software, but IE's NetMeeting offers multi-point communication while Navigator's CoolTalk is limited to two points.

IE 3.0 offers some features absent in Netscape--for one, it lets you set filters to block out sites containing various degrees of nudity, violence, crude language and explicit gore. A hard-to-offend adult might leave the filters wide open, but a parent of young children might set the filters a bit more stringently to prevent the kids from stumbling into the Web's raunchier byways.

You can easily see and compare both browsers for free. Download Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 from Netscape Navigator 3.0 can be found at Both sites offer showcase pages that demonstrate their browsers' best features. You will also want to look at Netscape's demo pages using IE, and vice versa. By exploring each demo site with the competing product, you'll quickly see where the browsers function identically, and where they part company.

Kicking the Tires

There's more to the browsers than simply performance, of course. Under the hood, the browsers are radically different. Microsoft built IE 3.0 to operate seamlessly with what's already on your system as a fully enabled ActiveX application. This means any other ActiveX app on your system automatically works with IE 3.0. For end users, it's great: You can click on a link to a Word file, for example, and the IE 3.0 browser window will gain Word's toolbars. This ActiveX/OLE integration is especially nice for intranets because you won't have to convert your existing files to HTML for them to be fully viewable with a browser.

Netscape takes a different tack. Navigator 3.0 is not an ActiveX container, so if you click on a native Word .DOC file, you'll get a standard Unknown File Type error message. You can work around this by creating an association within Netscape as described earlier.

Microsoft's approach means anything that improves ActiveX functionality will automatically provide those improvements to your browser, along with every other ActiveX application on your PC. It's a "whole-system" approach that integrates the browser into your desktop, applications and system, making a local drive and a distant Web site look almost identical to the user's eye. In a nutshell, Microsoft is evolving its operating systems to become browser-like at every level.

Netscape is headed the other way. Navigator is evolving into such a powerful, complete package that one day it might replace the operating system--and, not incidentally, unseat Microsoft. Although that won't happen anytime soon, the implications are here today. The Netscape approach is to add function after function to the browser via upgrades and plug-ins. There are currently at least five dozen different major--and often competing--plug-ins available. Each plug-in adds functions to the browser but, unlike ActiveX, won't automatically upgrade any other applications or the system itself. To Netscape, the browser is the system, and anything outside the browser is irrelevant.

Which fundamental approach (system-centric or browser-centric) is better depends in large part on what you want, what feels right to you and what best fits your needs.

In any case, both browsers are excellent tools that will enrich your online experiences. With its added features, special intranet strength, unbeatable price and Microsoft's whole-system approach, IE 3.0 is a serious contender--but Netscape's huge market share, cross-platform uniformity and diverse, robust features make it a hard-to-beat champion.

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