Why immature products reach market

Summary:Nowhere is this more evident than in Internet Explorer 4.0, which forces you to spend hours "exploring" before you can figure out how it works or what it's supposed to do.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Internet Explorer 4.0, which forces you to spend hours "exploring" before you can figure out how it works or what it's supposed to do.

If you can get it running, that is.

I'm running beta of Windows 98 which as you probably know, won't let you update its built-in Internet Explorer with the recently released Version 4.0; and the version of IE in the beta is several builds behind the shipping version. (The same is true of the NT 5.0 beta.) Instead, I have to wait until the Windows 98 beta is updated--even though Win 98's install routine automatically subscribed me to Microsoft's AutoUpdate feature for Internet Explorer!

AutoUpdate is part of Microsoft's plan to gain a competitive edge through subscriptions. The idea is to automatically and transparently update your Win 98 and Win NT 5.0 apps and drivers via the Internet. The main problem, at least in the current Windows 98 beta, is the feature doesn't let you know what exactly has changed, only that an update has taken place. With all the patches and fixes, one can only hope that a future version will either alert you to them or maintain a detailed log so you know what's changed on your system. If not, it won't be the only time I've been disappointed by Microsoft.

Explorations in Pain Understanding IE 4.0's subscriptions is no picnic. Subscriptions come in many different forms. You can subscribe to channels; Web sites; and automatic updates for the OS, applications, and drivers. Subscriptions also manifest themselves in different ways. They can show up as a Web page that always displays or an ActiveX control that runs on your desktop or they can appear as a set of Web pages downloaded to your PC for offline viewing.

The process of subscribing is incredibly confusing. From IE, you can go to a Web site and subscribe to it to view pages offline. But to add something to the desktop, you have to right-click and work your way through the Desktop Properties dialog until you eventually encounter a wizard for adding an item. Intuition told me there must be a common way to manage all subscription types.

Naturally, I was drawn to the Subscription Manager. Surely, there, where all my subscriptions are listed, I expected to be able to view each one's type (Active Desktop control, Active Desktop Web page, download for offline viewing, software update) and create new subscriptions (by clicking on File|New).

No deal. Not only does IE lack an intuitive way to create subscriptions from the Subscription Manager, but also you can't even identify the type of existing subscriptions. And once you add an offline subscription, managing it is a chore. I do a lot of traveling and frequently switch between online and offline browsing. Offline subscriptions require that the content be updated at regular intervals.

However, because my schedule is anything but regular, I want the OS to figure out when I'm connected to the Net and then automatically update all my subscriptions. Unfortunately, it can't. My only option is to manually update subscriptions, and in true Microsoft fashion, there are at least two ways to do this.

I'm zipping through the atmosphere at 30,000 feet sans Ethernet or modem connection. You'd think the browser would automatically default to the offline mode. But instead, the "E" spins away, and I'm told that a connection with the site could not be established. What makes this even harder to stomach is that I double-clicked an icon from the very place that tells the browser I have an offline version--the Subscription Manager!

The code-jockeys at Microsoft omitted these and other usability features because they couldn't figure them out. I'm guessing they had to get IE 4.0 out the door first. Netscape was applying the pressure with the push-enabled version of Navigator. So push literally came to shove (as in "get the product out the door.")

But like the thin line separating the operating system from IE, this is only temporary. By the time Win 98 and NT 5.0 ship, IE will have gone through several revisions and patches that fix bugs discovered by you, the public. As a result, Internet Explorer isn't the only thing that will get fixed. Windows 98 will also benefit. In essence, IE 4.0 is the public beta of Microsoft's next operating systems, because as Microsoft has promised, all three (IE 4.0, Win 98, and NT 5.0) will be in sync.

--From Windows Sources

Topics: Browser, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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