Next Wednesday, Microsoft Corporation will release Internet Explorer 5.0, and computing will never be the same. It's not that IE 5.0 is radically different from IE 4.0 (it's not, from the user's standpoint) or even that IE 5.0 contains some hidden benefit that no one's touched on yet (it doesn't, we've all talked up IE 5.0 for months). No, IE 5.0 represents a link to the way we compute today and the way we're going to be computing in the future. Here's how:

  • IE 5.0 is the major component of Microsoft's biggest franchises, Office and Windows. In fact, these two products represent over 90% of Microsoft's earnings. They say IE is free, and it is, but it's also directly responsible for most of the money coming into the company. It's what you'd call "strategic." As soon as IE 5.0 goes gold, the Office 2000 and Windows 2000 machinery will rumble back to life with major new releases. In fact, Office 2000 is ready now, simply waiting for IE 5.0 to be finished before it can be released to manufacturing. Windows 2000 Beta 3 RC 1 is also ready, also waiting solely on the release of IE 5.0. The upcoming OSR refresh of Windows 98 will also include IE 5.0.

  • It's the death of Netscape. Sorry AOL, but you bought a turkey. In the past few years, Netscape was able to compete with Microsoft by moving quickly and upgrading at a moment's notice. The only developments we've seen out of Netscape in the past year, however, have been weak upgrades to the aging Communicator 4.5. IE 4.0 went head to head with Communicator and won hand's down; in fact, IE now dominates Netscape 2-to-1 in marketshare. But IE 5.0 just raises the bar. And where's Netscape in all of this? MIA.

  • Unlike IE 4.0, IE 5.0 is completely componentized. That means smaller and quicker downloads if you only want basic services. And features can be added on the fly. Lots of Windows NT Server administrators were thrown for a loop when upgrades like the NT Option Pack, SQL Server 7.0, and Service Pack 4 required IE 4.0, which was a buggy mess and a resource pig. These types of upgrades will be less painful with IE 5.0.

  • No more futzing with the Windows user interface. Unlike IE 4.0, which ran rampant with changes to the Windows shell, the IE 5.0 team decided to stick to their strengths and upgrade the core products only. This means that most of the improvements in IE 5.0 are under the covers, but it also means we're getting a faster, more reliable, and more feature-rich release, not a bundling of unwanted features rammed down our throats (Active Desktop, Channels, and the Channel Bar come to mind: All are downplayed or outright removed in IE 5.0. Thank God.).

  • It works the way you want it to. Features such as Favorites, auto-complete, and Search now work logically and more efficiently. I'll cover these and other features in a full-length IE 5.0 review next week.
As we march forward into this new, post-Browser Wars era, not all is well: IE 5.0, like most Microsoft products, retains some bull-headed mistakes that are likely to cause some people fits. But it's also the best Web browser ever made, by far, and I can't think of many scenarios where the upgrade to 5.0 doesn't make sense. Regardless of any personal feelings about the new browser, one thing is certain: IE 5.0 is part of a brave new world that Windows users are about to enter. It will pay to become familiar with it now, so that future upgrades to Windows 2000, Windows 2002, or whatever, are that much easier