New Microsoft browser is 'lite'

For Microsoft bigger may be better when it comes to operating systems, but on the browser front Microsoft is conceding that smaller is beautiful.

The public gets its first look at Microsoft's trimmed-down, next-generation browser this week, when the company posts to its Web site the first developer releases of Internet Explorer 5.0. While anyone will be free to download the browser or full installs of IE 5.0, users will first need to register on Microsoft's Site Builder Web site in order to do so.

The developer releases won't look very different from IE 4.X, since most of the enhancements at this stage are at the Dynamic HTML (DHTML), XML and scriptlet levels. User-interface enhancements won't debut until later this year, when Microsoft posts its first beta of the product. Officials refused to estimate when Microsoft might make that available, although group product manager Rob Bennett confirmed Microsoft's goal is to ship the final version "within a year from now."

Besides attempting to make IE 5.0 a more robust development platform, Microsoft is also focusing on making the browser more compact with this release. As of the developer release, IE 5.0's browser-only "minimal" install will be about 8MB to 10MB in size; the full "standard" release will be about 18MB to 20MB, according to Microsoft.

Currently, IE 4.0 comes in three flavors - minimal, standard and full. The minimal 4.0 install is about 12MB and the full is 24MB. According to Microsoft, the ‘typical' minimal installation if IE 4.0 takes 1.5 hours to download, while the full installation requires three hours to download via a dial-up connection (no modem speed specified).

Only a "super small" number of people - maybe 1 percent of the total IE user base - want the minimal version of IE, said Bennett, but Microsoft is providing a choice because "some customers are asking for it."

With IE 5.0, Microsoft is shrinking the product in two ways. It's removing from both versions of the browser a number of the add-ons that it incorporated into IE 4.X - such as its NetShow audio/video streaming and NetMeeting conferencing options - and leaving them in Windows and NT, where they debuted originally.

Simultaneously, Microsoft will make a number of other components that currently are part of IE 4.X user-downloadable options, among which are likely to be Microsoft's Java Virtual Machine (VM), various multimedia options, scripting and Microsoft Wallet.

Microsoft's decision to make the JavaVM an optional, rather than default, component of its browser has raised some eyebrows among cross-platform Java advocates, but Bennett denied any ulterior motive on Microsoft's part. "Our Java VM is in our typical IE install today but not in the minimal install," he said. "New browsers like Opera are fast and lean. If you go to a Java page, IE will ask you if you want to download Microsoft's Java VM from our Web site."