Microsoft debates future of IE 6

Standalone product, or integrated? And integrated with what? The answers are far from clear regarding the next major IE pdate

"Where do you want to go today?" may be a Microsoft catch phrase--but the company seems unsure about where it wants to go with Internet Explorer.

Not so long ago, Microsoft viewed its browser as being so key to its success that it went to court with the Department of Justice over the company's rights to bundle it with the Windows operating system. With Microsoft's marketing might behind it, and a price tag of free, Internet Explorer (IE) quickly grew to eclipse Netscape's Navigator as the number 1 browser in market share.

Now, while Microsoft is continuing to add new features and functions to IE, there is much rethinking internally at the company about how and where to position the product, according to a variety of industry sources close to Microsoft.

That's in part because IE isn't Microsoft's only browser. There's also the more consumer-oriented MSN Explorer, launched last October. And on the drawing books there is the more "knowledge-worker" kind of interface that Microsoft is designing into its stealth Netdocs product.

"MSN Explorer is being positioned as the premiere platform for the consumer. Netdocs is being positioned as the business platform with a business browser. So there's no room left for IE," said a source close to Microsoft. "It's being squeezed."

IE 6.0, the newest version of Microsoft's browser, still has yet to be released officially to beta. A technical preview of IE 6.0 went to a subset of testers who agreed to nondisclosure agreements, last fall. And beta testers of Microsoft's next version of Windows, code-named Whistler, also are dabbling with technical preview IE builds that have been integrated into Whistler.

The first widespread beta of IE 6.0 will come out simultaneously with the release of Whistler beta 2, according to sources close to the company. IE 6.0 beta 1 will be embedded in Whistler beta 2, which is expected in February.

Sources claimed that Microsoft has been talking about opting not to release a standalone beta of IE 6.0. The sources added that debates have occurred within the company about whether or not Microsoft should make the final IE 6.0 code available as a separate product that can be downloaded or installed by CD. Instead, sources said, Microsoft has been strongly considering making IE 6.0 only available as part of Whistler.

A Microsoft spokeswoman initially declined to talk about IE 6.0 in any way, saying it was "too early to talk about features or deliverables."

After publication of the story, the spokeswoman said that Microsoft had no plans to make IE 6.0 available only as part of Whistler. "It's business as usual," she added, claiming that Microsoft will also make IE 6.0 beta 1 available for download separately, once the company releases it.

Some at Microsoft are arguing that IE should not be the default interface for all of the flavors of Whistler that Microsoft is developing, according to sources.

Microsoft is thought to be developing 32-bit Personal, Professional, Server, Advanced Server and Datacenter versions of Whistler, plus 64-bit versions of Advanced Server and Datacenter. The Personal and Professional versions of Whistler are expected to ship before the end of 2001, with the others to follow in 2001 to 2002.

Some involved with Windows development are said to be advocating that MSN Explorer, instead of IE, be included as the integrated browser for the Personal release of Whistler, which is aimed at consumers, said sources. There is also a push by some to make the Netdocs interface the default on the business-oriented Professional Whistler flavour.

Netdocs, which is shaping up to be a competitor to Microsoft Office, is expected to be a single, integrated application that will include a full suite of functions, including e-mail, personal information management, document-authoring tools, digital-media management, and instant messaging. Microsoft is expected to make Netdocs available in the next year or two, only as a hosted service over the Internet, not as a shrink-wrapped application or software that's preloaded on the PC. The Netdocs interface is based on a piece of Microsoft .Net technology known as the "Universal Canvas."

But there could be pushback on these plans--at least on the MSN Explorer idea--by some of the more technical users. A number of these techies believe Microsoft has gone too far to make Windows palatable to new users.

"In some ways, Whistler Personal is the OS they should have come out with in 1995," said one tech-savvy Whistler tester, who requested anonymity." In this day and age, enough people are comfortable with their PC that these performance/productivity sapping 'improvements' are going to be seen as offensive. It's like the Office Paperclip team took over the Whistler Personal project!" The so-called Clippy feature was an animated help system reviled by many users.

Another Whistler tester, who requested anonymity, said that with Whistler Personal beta build 2410, Microsoft added the MSN Explorer icon to the desktop, but left IE 6.0 as the default interface.

"Advanced users like me will just go to IE 6.0 cause we can't stand the MSN Explorer interface," said the tester. But "it's clear that Personal is being aimed at users like my mom, who don't have a clue about computers and just want to get e-mail and do some simple tasks."

Currently, Microsoft markets IE as the browser for more computer-savvy users, and MSN Explorer as the interface for newer users. Microsoft currently offers IE as both an integrated element of its Windows Millennium Edition and Windows 2000 products, and as a standalone product. MSN Explorer is the front-end for Microsoft's MSN Internet service.

IE 6.0, according to the Windows enthusiast Web site ActiveWin, will include a number of user-interface enhancements, as well as compliance with several, critical W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) standards.

ActiveWin has cited technical beta testers as saying the next-generation browser will include built-in Explorer bars, such as the Media Bar, which will provide access to Windows Media Player as an integrated part of the browsing experience. It also will include a "My Pictures" area for viewing, saving and mailing photos over the Internet. Microsoft also is integrating new dynamic HTML features for content developers, as well as support for the Cascading Style Sheets, Level 1 (CSS1) and Document Object Model (DOM) Level 1 standards.

MSN Explorer, the most recent version of which Microsoft launched last fall, looks like a combination browser/portal. MSN Explorer integrates Hotmail, MSN Messenger, MSN Calendar, MSN eShop Windows Media Player and MoneyCentral into a single interface. MSN Explorer competes with America Online's AOL 6.0 product.

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