IE 5.0 will browse and broadcast

Microsoft's next-generation Web browser will include an online radio tool that will allow users to press buttons to switch from "station" to "station," similar to a car radio, ZDNN has learned.

Internet Explorer 5.0, earmarked for release on March 18, will include a "radio" button in its toolbar, sources at the company said. This will let the user click directly to a page offering a customisable online audio tuner, which will offer pre-set links to audio content from National Public Radio, CNN, the BBC, and the House of Blues, according to sources.

The browser will also incorporate a Web events listings area, providing links to live and archived audio and video. Microsoft officials had no comment on the unannounced feature. Barry Parr, director of consumer Internet with International Data Corp., said the move was reminiscent of what Microsoft tried to do with the active desktop to establish a relationship with media companies. "Web radio has never really taken off, I think because it's always been perceived as part of another Web site, not a separate application that sits on your desktop. This makes more sense as an integrated part of the browser than a channel bar ever did," Parr said. Parr said the radio application could be "a huge new distribution mechanism for people in the streaming audio field."

"It's a stronger way than distributing an active-x control or a plug-in. It becomes part of the feature set of the browser, rather than going to a Web site that simulates a jukebox. The music becomes an element of the interface itself," he said.

Jae Kim, an analyst with Paul Kagan Associates, said it would be more interesting if Microsoft focused on grassroots, non-mainstream oriented content providers, such as RealNetworks' recent deal with Geocities. "I wouldn't pooh-pooh it, but this is pretty basic stuff," Kim said. "When you're living in a world of crystal-clear FM radio and 30 frames-per-second television, re-purposed content via the Web isn't the most compelling experience."

The move is a smart one because it capitalises on something that has become "an integral part of people's online behaviour," said Peter Krasilovsky, an analyst at The Kelsey Group, an e-commerce consultancy in Princeton, N.J. "The audience for online audio has developed organically," Krasilovsky said. "You have people using it for everything from listening to industry conferences and to getting sports headlines," he said.

Incorporating a radio feature directly into the browser's toolbar is "another way for Microsoft to tie into vital markets on the Web," Krasilovsky said. However, "It's not the kind of thing that makes us worry about antitrust issues, which is good," he added.