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-- by Jim Forbes and Eileen McCooey
Browsers can do a whole lot more than usher you onto the Internet. In the latest escalation of the browser wars, these programs serve as a window to your own desktop . . . not to mention the hard drive, the local server, even remote hosts. And you still don't have to pay much, if anything, for a browser.
So what's in it for the vendors? Browsers continue to be an incredibly high-profile product, potentially as integral to your PC as your operating system.
And that fact certainly hasn't escaped Microsoft, which is touting its Internet Explorer 4.0 as a big step in the eventual, and inevitable, integration of the PC and the Internet. The new browser, which will ship sometime this summer, works with Windows 95 and NT 4.0, and will be bundled with Windows 97 and NT 5.0. It will be made available to OEMs shortly and could start shipping with new PCs as early as year's end.
IE 4.0 is designed to offer better browsing, greater personalization, and more communication and collaboration tools, along with tighter integration with Windows itself. "We want to put the Web right into your PC," said Paul Balle, product manager for the Internet Platform and Tools Division.
Numerous changes tie IE 4.0 closely to your standard Windows desktop (see WinLab Reviews/What's Hot in this issue). Microsoft claims IE 4.0 is faster, more stable and more compatible with diverse content and technologies than previous versions. The product also includes tools for e-mail, news, conferencing, authoring, publishing and broadcasting. AirMedia, BackWeb and FirstFloor Software plan to integrate their content delivery solutions with IE 4.0.
Meanwhile, Netscape, which doesn't have an OS to build on, plans to fight back with its Netscape Communicator package (see Cover Story, March), also set to ship this summer. "We're designing Communicator for corporate desktops," said Daniel Claussen, group product manager.
And just as Microsoft is challenging Netscape on the browser front, Netscape seems ready to battle Microsoft in the desktop arena. To that end, Communicator includes a word processing program called Composer, a conferencing module and an e-mail application. Communicator Pro also has auto-administration capabilities.
Still, the heart and soul of Communicator is Navigator 4.0, the latest version of the market-leading browser. It can be modified to meet organizational needs and is designed to accommodate new types of Web content. As with I.E. 4.0, one feature is Netscape's idea of dynamic HTML, which automatically sizes graphics, blocks of text and objects to fit specific frames.
Composer, the text-editing module, automatically generates HTML code. Like full-fledged word processors, it lets you format text, create tables on the fly or add attributes such as bullets.
Meanwhile, the e-mail module, called Netscape Messenger, supports industry standards such as LDAP directory searching and IMAP4. The conferencing feature supports whiteboarding, which lets users share data and graphics.
Microsoft has put its considerable muscle behind IE 4.0, and the tactic is paying off. Netscape now has a 59 percent share of market, but that is likely to drop to 38 percent this year, according to Jupiter Research. Microsoft's share, meanwhile, should climb from 31 percent to 52 percent. Of course, it probably doesn't hurt that Microsoft's offering is free; Communicator costs up to $59 and Communicator Pro will carry a $79 price tag.