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-- by Amy Helen Johnson
Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 and Netscape Communicator (a reengineered version of Navigator that consists of a suite of communications tools) share a lot of common features. But get down to the nitty-gritty details, and you'll find that widely different philosophies are behind the two products. With version 4.0, IE finally overtakes Communicator as the best browser for beginners and casual Web users. Communicator, meanwhile, remains our WinList choice for experienced Web surfers.
The difference is in the details, which reflect a basic philosophical split between Microsoft and Netscape. Microsoft promotes IE 4.0 as the "Web PC," a phrase that encapsulates Microsoft's emerging vision of the browser integrated with the Windows shell. As the precursor to the browser-centric shell of Memphis (the upcoming new version of Windows), IE 4.0 must accommodate the same audience as Windows itself-namely, everyone from the complete beginner to the seasoned Windows user. Netscape, which doesn't control an operating system, emphasizes open-standards communications capabilities. This gives Netscape the advantage of concentrating exclusively on Internet surfing and communications; it does not have to produce the best overall OS interface, just the best Web utilities.
Microsoft's determination to improve the Web experience is clear.
Wisely drawing on its mass PC market appeal, the company has added dozens of little changes designed to make the Web and Windows itself a friendlier and less mystical place. Position your mouse over a hotlink, and a pop-up label containing the full URL appears. Start typing a URL in the address bar of IE 4.0, and it's automatically completed. Designate the current site as one of your Favorites, and IE 4.0 asks if you want to subscribe to the site and be notified of content changes. Right-click on the Forward or Back buttons for a list of all the pages you've visited in either direction; click on the one you want, and you'll go there. Message creation no longer uses technical terms like "point size"; it just asks if you want smaller, larger or huge type. The Microsoft Wallet gives you a place to store electronic IDs, credit-card numbers and digital cash for online commerce.
Some of these conveniences are helpful to all users, but most reveal an emphasis on flattening the browser's learning curve. Microsoft is so intent on this that it goes too far, employing several silly hand-holding touches that provide little value. IE's vapid explanations in the New Message window-"Subject: [click here to enter subject]"-and time/processing power wasters, such as thumbnails of Favorites, are good examples.
However, advanced users get short shrift. For example, Microsoft failed to refine customization procedures for IE's Start and Search pages and Links toolbar. To change Start and Search pages, you may only select the current page, the Microsoft preprogrammed default page or a typed-in URL. Communicator, by comparison, offers a default blank page button, which is easier than typing a URL. The same frustrating choices apply when adding preferences to IE's Links toolbar; with Communicator, you can drag the URL from the address bar to the Personal toolbar (where you can access favorite links). Communicator also lets you add Bookmarks in the same way, even allowing you to precisely position them in the Bookmark hierarchy; IE uses a menu choice and a dialog box to add a Bookmark, which you organize in a third step.
A browser, and then some
IE 4.0 is more than a mere browser. To appreciate the full impact of its Web PC capabilities, you need to install the optional shell-integration features of the program. In light of Microsoft's stated plan to hard-code a browser-based shell into the next version of Windows, we took a close look at this set of features.
With IE 4.0 installed as part of your shell, familiar file-system navigation utilities like My Computer and Windows Explorer look like Internet Explorer, with address bars, Forward and Back buttons, a Links toolbar and a Favorites menu item. Their display areas sport a more Web-like look, incorporating background patterns and hotlinking folders and files so that a single click launches an item. And there's a blurred distinction about where a file resides-your hard drive, the network, your intranet or the Internet. With shell integration, all those locations comprise one huge bucket of content. So "The Internet" appears as an area on your Desktop, with the traditional My Computer and Network Neighborhood choices. The Start menu contains a Favorites entry, so you can launch Web pages as easily as applications. Find has an option to "Find on the Internet." As far as the IE 4.0 shell is concerned, every place is equal; all you have to do is indicate where you want to be, and the correct navigation utility will pop up.
This big-bucket approach, with its accompanying context-sensitive utility switching, is fine for novices who don't organize their files into a folder hierarchy. But as experienced users who grasp the concepts of subdirectories and subnets, we found this new shell confusing and contradictory.
There's no such thing as a unified browser-not yet, anyway. Microsoft says shell integration provides a single Explorer, so that "the process of finding information is unified in one utility to universally view local, network, intranet and Internet data." But the reality is, there are still two Explorers on a Win95 Desktop: Windows Explorer and a combined IE/My Computer view. They're kept separate, and while you can go from Windows Explorer to IE with a click of the mouse (just launch an HTML page stored on your hard drive), there's no way to return to Windows Explorer without deliberately changing applications. Furthermore, launching IE from Windows Explorer in order to view an HTML page isn't consistent behavior, nor is Windows Explorer solely a file-system viewer. Depending on the form of the HTML page you want to view, Windows Explorer can act as a Web browser. For example, you can view an HTML page in the right-hand pane of Windows Explorer-just click on a Desktop shortcut listed under the heading "The Internet" in the left-hand side of the window. Then, if you're online, following that page's links will download new pages from the Internet, displaying them in the right-hand pane, just as if you were using Internet Explorer. So there are several ways to see a Web page using at least two utilities-hardly the universal browser Microsoft claims.
Unfortunately, IE 4.0's context-sensitive toolbars are hard to decipher. If you boot IE 4.0 with a default blank page, the address bar supplies a drop-down list of all the Desktop items-C: drive, Recycle Bin, Control Panel and so forth. But when you pick a Web page from your Favorites and return to the address bar, the Desktop items disappear from the drop-down list; all you see are visited URLs. If you type in a drive designation such as C:, you return to the file-system list. In other words, when you're in the Desktop portion of the big bucket, the URLs don't appear, and when you go to the Web portion, the Desktop is hidden. That's not universal viewing.
Some parts of the new shell are useful for experts and novices alike. We especially appreciate the taskbar's Minimize All icon, which quickly minimizes every open application. Click on it again to restore everything to its original place and size. We also like IE 4.0's ability to rearrange Start menu items by dragging and dropping. But we think shell integration is better left to newcomers who won't recognize its inconsistencies.
The unknown factor in this browser war is the active desktop that both Microsoft and Netscape intend to be the channel receiver for push content. No channels were working at press time, so we couldn't fully test this capability. Each is heavily integrating its version of the active desktop with its browser suite, and the result may widen the gulf between these competitors. But based on features Netscape and Microsoft have delivered so far, we'd advise experienced users to stick with Netscape Communicator. It has better customization features, and its proud-to-be-a-browser architecture lets you know where you are and what you're looking at. It will continue to be our WinList recommended choice for the Web-savvy. Explorer's fast-navigation touches and combined file/Web philosophy, on the other hand, make it our WinList pick for novice computer users and casual Web surfers who don't care about the fine points of their computer's file system.