Microsoft has already won the browser war against Netscape when it comes to market share. Still, the features battle between the two continues to rage, as each revamps its browser with copycat features.
Microsoft's latest salvo occurs this week, with the release of Internet Explorer 6.0. This comes on the heels of Netscape's July update to version 6.1. Microsoft's update from IE 5.5, which is compatible with Windows 98, Me, and 2000, is available for download. A nearly identical version of IE 6.0 will be available in October with the release of the Windows XP operating system.
The difference between IE 5.5 and 6 isn't dramatic, but it's significant. Many changes are subtle and found under the browser's hood. IE 6.0 is filled with small improvements that make using the Web simpler and safer for average Web surfers.
Singing new tunes
IE 6.0 matches two key features introduced in Netscape 6: privacy management options and compliance with more Web standards. Microsoft goes one better than Netscape by adding a Microsoft Media Bar, accessible by clicking a Media icon at the top of the browser. The Media Bar is a panel running down the left of the browser and links you to mostly MSN audio and video content on the Net.
Another new feature is an image toolbar that appears above images on Web sites. It's meant to streamline printing, email, or saving pictures from Web pages. Just hover your mouse over an image and the toolbar appears.
A related feature is one that automatically resizes an oversized picture. The tool can take an extraordinarily large picture and shrink it to fit within the current size of your browser window. It's an optional function, and appears only when you hover your mouse over the oversized image. You can then toggle between the original image size and the reduced size with a click of your mouse button.
Also like Netscape, IE6 adds a new error dialogue box that pops up when IE 6.0 crashes. It generates a report of the crash's details that you can choose to send to Microsoft.
The stand-alone IE6 browser and Windows XP browser are functionally identical. However, the beta browser integrated with Windows XP has a more colorful user interface and seems to be more stable than its stand-alone cousin. Another subtle difference is IE 6.0 for Windows XP uses Windows Media Player for Windows XP, while the stand-alone browser uses the older Windows Media Player 7.1.
IE's different Outlook
Also updated is Microsoft's free companion e-mail program Outlook Express, bundled with the full IE 6.0 download.
Outlook Express has added some nifty security features. You can block any executable attachments, compressed files, or Visual Basic Scripts, commonly associated with email viruses. Another feature will alert you anytime an application tries to access your Outlook Express address book and attempts to send email from your account - another favorite dirty trick of virus writers.
On the downside, Outlook Express 6 makes it harder for you to access your Hotmail account from the mail program. Outlook 5.5 had an easy-to-find menu option where you could add your Hotmail account to Outlook Express for offline perusing. Outlook Express 6 discourages this integration, but you can add Hotmail access through the more obtuse Internet Accounts dialog box.
Smart Tags found in the beta release didn't make it to the final shipping version. This feature let Microsoft link any word on a Web page to another site. For example, if you're reading a story on a non-Microsoft news site, the word "economy" might have a dotted purple line under it - click, and you jump to MSN Money.
Microsoft decided to drop Smart Tag support after customers cried foul. They charged that the purple lines deface Web pages, and voiced concern that Microsoft will link every page on the Web to its MSN properties.
If you're a beta user of IE 6.0, you may notice Smart Tags don't vanish when you download the final release. Microsoft says this is a glitch, and recommends that you uninstall the beta release of IE 6.0 before you upgrade to the final version to get rid of Smart Tags once and for all.
If you're an Office XP user you'll still be able to use your Office XP Smart Tags with IE 6.0. But you'll have to venture into the Advanced Settings of IE 6.0 and activate your Office XP Smart Tags. However, in order for Office XP Smart Tags to work on Web pages, the Web site owner has to code the site for support.
Also missing is support for Java programming language and Netscape-style plug-ins. Instead of using Java, Microsoft has opted for what it calls a more secure alternative - its own ActiveX. This, too, is consistent with its plans for Windows XP, which drops the Java Virtual Machine.
If you are upgrading from a previous version of Internet Explorer, Java support will be carried over. But if your PC doesn't support Java, you'll have to download the Java program to view any Web pages that use Java.
On the privacy front, Microsoft has adopted the privacy standard P3P (Platform for Privacy Preferences Project) that, in theory, makes it safer to visit Web sites with IE 6.0 than with Brand N.
Avoiding cookie monsters
Microsoft has also improved the way IE handles cookies. It's much easier to reject or delete cookies from specific Web sites. You use a new Privacy tab under the Internet Options menu item.
One of the most significant changes is hard to spot: long-awaited Web standards support. This is a boon to anyone who has visited a site only to view an error message or a bizarre layout. Chances are the site was designed for a different browser than yours.
Standards support decreases the odds of running into Web page formatting problems. It appeals to Web page designers too, because they dislike having to build a different version of a site for each browser.
Now that IE 6.0 and Netscape 6.1 are closer in parity, and support more of the same Web page programming dialects such as HTML 4, XML, CSS, and DOM, Web designers can worry less about different versions of browsers visiting, and you'll encounter fewer error messages.
Battle of the Sixes
Comparing Microsoft and Netscape and their latest browsers comes down to preference and loyalty. Clearly, Microsoft will continue to dominate the browser market - if only because most people are too lazy to download and install the Netscape browser, when IE comes with the OS.
Still, Netscape has an affiliation with a behemoth of its own. Netscape 6.1 offers tighter integration with AOL proprietary communications services. For example, you can add an AOL email account to Netscape Messenger, and its built-in instant messaging feature connects to the enormous user base of AOL's popular instant messaging program.
On the other hand, Microsoft seems to focus on Web content over communications. It has the edge over Netscape with the marriage of its own streaming media client into the browser with its Media Bar.
And, apparently hearing customer concerns, the browser vendors are trying to best each other in terms of privacy and standards. This is the best news yet from the so-called browser wars. While advocates squabble on the fine points of privacy protection, integrating such functions into the browser and giving consumers more control is a positive.
Even the peacenik at heart is likely to cheer a long and feisty war of the browsers.