IE5 Launch: Microsoft introduces kinder, gentler IE

Microsoft Corp. is reaching out to Web newbies with the latest release of its Internet Explorer browser.

IE 5, set to launch today (dowload it from ZD Downloads later today), will include a few new features that will automate Web surfing or save users time -- including Autocomplete, which automatically fills out Web forms; a "go" button, for newbies who don't realize they have to hit return; a radio feature, which will allow users to click on the screen to switch between preset stations; and a searching feature, which automatically calls up a search screen when a user types in a keyword.

Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT) also is taking a page from browser rival Netscape Communications Corp. (Nasdaq:NSCP). The company is borrowing some features first introduced by Netscape, including one similar to the company's What's Related function, which calls up a list of Web sites similar to the site a user is currently visiting.

Like Netscape, Microsoft is using Alexa Internet's technology to suggest sites similar to the page a user is viewing.

IE 5 also will include tighter integration with the e-mail client than previous versions and a feature called comic chat, which lets users send messages in a comic strip format. Another feature, called Web accessories, is Microsoft's attempt to include more partners in its browser venture.

The feature lets partners such as portal sites send information to users via a new pane that opens up within the existing window. For example, said Jupiter Communications analyst David Kerley, it could be used to open a separate panel that displays a constantly updated stock price while the user surfs other sites.

Microsoft is holding a release party at its headquarters in Redmond, Wash.,on Thursday, where CEO Bill Gates will show off the company's latest browsing technology. Microsoft UK are throwing a party to mark the launch of IE5 at a West London night spot.

Still, analysts are calling the new release merely an upgrade. "It's not the same revolution that we've seen in previous browsers," said Kerley, though he added that he was impressed with the browser's speed and stability.

When Microsoft introduced IE 4 in the fall of 1997, it presented users with a completely new interface, including further integration between the operating system and browser and an active desktop, which gave users a series of channels on their screen that would lead them to other Web sites.

Learning from Active Desktop But Microsoft isn't forcing any major new interface on users this time around, analysts said. "It's clear that the Active Desktop flopped," Kerley said. "It's a wise move to leave it behind." International Data Corp. analyst Barry Parr said the new IE gives Microsoft a slight leg up on Netscape -- at least for now. Netscape plans to introduce version 5 of its browser later this year. "In many ways it doesn't feel like a Microsoft product," Parr said of IE 5. "It's much leaner and more elegant than products like Word or Excel."

The browser war between the two companies evolved into a race to include more and more features into the Internet software, but the failure of projects such as the active desktop may be causing both Netscape and Microsoft to back off from adding more bells and whistles.

Netscape is promising a much slimmer browser when it introduces its upgrade this year, and IE 5 is much less of a jump for users than IE 4 was. Parr said companies should concentrate on making the features that people actually use -- such as bookmarks -- easier to negotiate. "What are people using browsers for? They're using them to browse," he said. "They're not looking for much really beyond that."