Microsoft's latest Web browser has what it takes and then some

Quick, what does Internet Explorer (IE) mean to you? If you're like most Netscape Navigator users, you probably think of Microsoft's Web browser as just a throw-away application. IE1 and IE2 certainly paled in comparison to their arch rival, Netscape's bigger, faster, and more powerful Navigator (for information on the latest Netscape Navigator, see the sidebar, "Netscape's New Navigator."). However, Microsoft has shipped IE3, and it delivers a crushing blow to Netscape's pièce de résistance. The final version of IE3, which I review here, has a new look, expanded Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) support, optimized performance, free content offers, and a plethora of--dare I say it--cool new features.

Installing IE3
Installing the full version of IE3, a 9.8MB download, is straightforward. The setup program scans your system for existing versions of IE. If the installer finds a previous version, it puts IE3 in the same directory and renames the old version to ie#.exe, (# is the version number). By having IE3 rename your previous version, Microsoft gives you a fallback in case IE3 crashes. IE3 also scans for Netscape bookmarks and converts them to IE3 favorites. This convenience is handy if you have a lot of bookmarks. After a quick reboot, you're up and running with IE3.

A New Look
The first feature you notice is the new user interface (UI), which resembles those of Microsoft's Cinemania and Encarta. The new UI is more pleasing to the eye than Navigator's industrial-strength interface or previous versions of IE. A nice aesthetic touch is that the toolbar buttons change from monochrome to color when you move the mouse cursor over them.

The toolbar includes the standard back, forward, and home buttons, and you can have one-click access to features that are usually buried in menus. For example, the Font button lets you change font sizes without opening a dialog. Sliding toolbars, such as the Links toolbar, let you save screen space by tucking them away.

The IE3 UI is highly customizable. For example, you can remove components (such as toolbars) that are stationary in other browsers.

Frame and Plugin Support
IE3 matches Netscape Navigator 3.0 feature for feature, and Microsoft ups the ante by adding new capabilities. For example, IE3 supports frames, which Netscape first introduced, but goes further by supporting borderless and floating frames. IE3 also supports the Cascading Style Sheets standard, although the rest of the industry isn't following suit. This standard lets HTML authors and Web developers use style tags to create rich Web pages with desktop publishing-like control.

To help users migrate from Netscape to IE, Microsoft added support for Netscape plugins. My tests show that IE3 supports most major plugins, although Microsoft doesn't guarantee 100% compatibility. I downloaded five popular Netscape plugins: Shockwave for Director from Macromedia (for information about Shockwave, see Eric Shanfelt, "Shockwave Rocks Multimedia Development," September 1996), VDOLive from VDOnet, Crescendo from LiveUpdate, Adobe's Acrobat Reader, and ichat's namesake plugin. Each plugin installed and ran as smoothly as on Netscape.

ActiveX Interactive Objects
At the heart of IE3 is Microsoft's Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM), which uses the much-hyped ActiveX controls. ActiveX is Microsoft's name for OLE Custom Controls (OCXs) modified to run over a network (in this case, the Internet or an intranet). (For information about DCOM, see Keith Pleas, "NT 4.0's Distributed Component Object Model," September 1996. For information about ActiveX, see Microsoft's ActiveX page at www.microsoft.com/ie/ie3/activex.htm.)

ActiveX objects (controls) extend a basic Web browser's capabilities. With ActiveX controls, you can embed interactive objects in static documents, as you can with Java applets. For example, real estate agents who describe a house on the market with text and pictures can now use an ActiveX control to display a 3D rendition of the house. The ActiveX control lets prospective buyers take a virtual walk through the virtual house with full freedom of movement. A good example of ActiveX in practice is XpressNet's Distance Learning site (www.xpnet.com).

Citrix's WinFrame ActiveX control lets you run a remote Windows application within the context of IE3. So if you have a sufficiently speedy connection to the Internet (or are working on an intranet), this approach can be a good alternative to NT's Remote Access Service (RAS) or to using products such as pcANYWHERE. I often use the WinFrame ActiveX control to connect to an NT Server machine in another state to remotely run database applications on that host system. I access this machine over a TCP/IP connection, so I save money because connecting to my Internet Service Provider (ISP) is a local call.

Many Netscape plugin authors have already converted their plugins to ActiveX controls. This conversion means you can view Shockwave files or watch VDOLive broadcasts from within an HTML document instead of having to spawn an external viewer.

The beauty--and potential danger--of ActiveX is that you don't have to actively seek out extensions. They automatically download and install on your system as needed. Because ActiveX controls contain executable binary code, they can make system calls. This ability to access your data leaves the door wide open for virus and trojan horse attacks because ActiveX controls download without user intervention.

However, ActiveX controls can be safer than equivalent Netscape plugins. Developers digitally sign their ActiveX controls with Microsoft's Authenticode cryptography technology. Before your system installs a control, IE3 displays a certificate with the name of the control, the name of the publisher, and the expiration date of the certificate. Unlike conventional forms of software distribution (such as retail), you can't always be certain that a software package distributed on the Internet hasn't been tampered with. ActiveX Software Publisher Certificates ensure that the code you download is pristine. Certification firms, such as Verisign, offer code certificates based on standard X.509 and Public Key Cryptography Standards (PKCS) formats. Screen 1 shows a sample certificate. When you receive a certificate, you can evaluate it for authenticity and decide whether to install or delete the control. You can abort a download if someone's tampered with the certificate (e.g., changed the name of the control, name of the publisher, or expiration date). This approach can be safer than manually downloading and installing plugins, which have no certification process. Other than using PKZIP's authentication algorithm to verify distribution archives, you can't check whether a plugin has been tampered with or modified.

IE3 is an ActiveX control that lets developers embed the browser in third-party applications. For example, the new 32-bit America Online and CompuServe clients are heavily modified IE3 interfaces that allow tighter integration with the desktop.

Although including ActiveX in IE3 is a great boon to NT users, Mac users are out in the cold. Most ActiveX controls are DLLs, which the Mac OS doesn't support. Microsoft says it will bring COM to the Mac with ActiveX, as part of IE3.0 for the Macintosh, by the end of 1996.

Java Support
IE3 also incorporates an excellent implementation of Java. Because IE3 uses a just-in-time (JIT) compiler, IE3 can convert Java byte codes to native Win32 code. This conversion means Java applets can run from two to 10 times faster than usual. Because most Java applets travel over the Internet, speed is essential. If you load Java-enhanced Web pages, you notice that your new 33.6 Kbits- per-second (Kbps) modem creeps along while the Java applets load. Fortunately, IE3 compresses and stores Java class libraries locally to significantly speed applet load times.

And Microsoft's Java implementation is fast. To see exactly how fast, I put IE3 up against Pendragon Software's CaffeineMark, the de facto industry standard Java benchmarking tool. I ran the tests on a Pentium 166MHz machine with 32MB of memory, running an ATI Mach64 Graphics Pro Turbo PCI card. CaffeineMark 2.01 performs nine throughput tests to gauge overall performance. The tests include prime number sieve tests, integer loops, floating point tests, graphics rendering, and logic tests. Graph 1 shows the performance comparison between Navigator and IE3. As you can see, IE3's Java Virtual Machine (VM) is clearly faster than Navigator 3.0's in most categories.

Microsoft seems to be supporting Java as a supplement to the ActiveX strategy. This marriage of opposing technologies works well and gives end users the best of both worlds. With Microsoft's Visual J++ compiler, you can even write ActiveX controls in Java code.

Free Content
As an incentive to entice new users, Microsoft teamed with various content providers (such as ESPNET and The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition) to give IE3 free access to Web sites that ordinarily carry a surcharge. This promotional push was a controversial move that has met with protest and resistance (particularly for The Wall Street Journal, which had its integrity questioned on its own Web site). In the end, however, these value-added premiums make diving into--or at least testing--the IE3 pool hard to resist.

IE3 also comes with Internet mail and newsgroup clients. Although these clients are on the bare-bones side (relative to commercially available clients such as Eudora Pro and Agent), they are functional enough for basic needs.

Working Out the Kinks
IE3 was available for public beta testing before its official release, but some problems and anomalies apparently slipped through the cracks. For example, clicking on a link while a page was loading often resulted in IE3 loading a blank page.

NT users who have migrated to RISC platforms (such as MIPS or PowerPC) will have to stick with NT 4.0's IE2 for now. IE3 is available only for Intel x86 machines. Microsoft says RISC versions of IE3 will be available shortly, however.

The Road to IE4
IE3 is Microsoft's first step toward integrating the Web with the operating system. IE3's integration with the Windows NT shell extends the document-centric approach to HTML and traditional file types such as Word documents and Excel workbooks. This approach blurs the distinction between local and network documents. Such integration provides a central shell from which to load documents regardless of file type.

Because IE3 is an OLE container, you can load OLE-structured storage files within the IE3 frame, as you see in Screen 2. This approach unifies all supported document types. Corporations turning an intranet into a collaborative groupware system will appreciate this unification. For example, you can now place a link to a Word document on an HTML document. When you click that document, IE3 seamlessly launches Word from within the browser, so you can work on the Word document.

We won't fully realize the merging of the Web and the OS until the release of IE4.0, code named Nashville (for a sneak peek at IE4, see Jon Honeyball, "The Road to Cairo Goes Through Nashville," June 1996). IE4, which is due out in early 1997 with a possible public beta version in late 1996, will turn the desktop into a global browser that lets you open folders, view files, and edit documents from within a Web browser.

On the whole, the current IE version is stable and suitable for everyday use. IE3 packs a lot of wallop for the price--it's free to all noncommercial and commercial users. In a side-by-side feature comparison with Navigator 3.0, IE3 more than holds its own. If you can handle the idiosyncrasies that come with perching on the bleeding edge of technologies such as ActiveX and Java, I highly recommend IE3.

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Web: www.microsoft.com/ie
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