Just about four years have passed since Netscape Navigator, the first commercial Web browser, hit the market. In the breakneck pace of Internet time, that's long enough for a product to go from wild experiment to maturity. And the latest release of Microsoft's Web browsing and E-mail package, Internet Explorer 5.0, makes it clear that browsers have grown up.
The new Windows version of IE was to be available for download from www.microsoft.com/ie on Mar. 18. A Macintosh edition is still in the works.
The first thing that struck me when I installed the new IE 5 was not what was new, but what was gone. The "channel bar," a silly and little-used feature of IE 4 that provided automatic downloads from selected Web sites, is no longer installed unless you ask for it. Instead of piling on new features, Microsoft has shifted its emphasis to ease of use and performance, particularly speed and reliability.
The hours that I have spent with the Windows version of the new browser suggest that Microsoft has to a large extent succeeded. Given the vagaries of the Web, the company's claim of faster downloads was all but impossible to test. But IE feels a bit snappier than Netscape, and it definitely opens Microsoft Word attachments and loads and runs Java programs faster. The best thing I can say about IE 5 is that I have yet to have it crash. (Netscape's new Communicator 4.51 is a bug fix that appears to have reduced the program's occasional tendency to crash.)
In terms of features, IE 5 brings Microsoft up to par with the version of Communicator introduced late last year. If you type in "Ford Ranger" as a Web address, the browser will automatically give you a list of likely sites, including the official Ford trucks home page. This resembles a feature introduced by Netscape in Communicator 4.5. Similarly, Internet Explorer uses a database provided by Alexa Internet (www.alexa. com) to suggest sites similar to any page you are browsing.
The only truly new feature in IE 5 is not one that I found useful. The "radio bar" is a toolbar that makes it easy to tune in stations that broadcast over the Internet. The trouble is that the sound quality is dismal, and except for the occasional distant sports event, I'd rather use a real radio.
In the end, your choice of a browser really comes down to a question of whose buttons and menus and style of organizing bookmarks you prefer. Both the Netscape and Microsoft browsers are very good. Market shares seem to have stabilized, with each of them accounting for about half.
Where Microsoft has a clear edge over Netscape is in the Outlook Express mail program that comes as part of the IE package. Unlike the Messenger component of Netscape Communicator, Outlook Express--not to be confused with Microsoft's clunky Outlook 98 combination mail program and contact manager--makes it easy to handle multiple mail accounts. I set it up to check for mail both on our corporate mail server and with my Internet service provider. It even works with Web-based mail services such as Microsoft's Hotmail and lets you manage your messages morequickly than you could on a browser.
SEPARATING JUNK. Outlook Express also offers a much richer set of message-handling rules than Messenger. For example, it allows you to automatically forward messages selectively, depending on who sent them, their subject, or key words in the message body. One of the nicest features of test versions of Outlook Express was an option that automatically separated all suspected junk mail into a special folder. Unfortunately, it's not in the final product because Blue Mountain Arts, a seller of online Greeting cards, won a court injunction barring the inclusion of the "anti-spam" feature.
The competing mail and browser programs can be mixed and matched, say Netscape Navigator with Outlook Express. True, Netscape Messenger automatically, and rudely, makes itself the default mail client when it is launched. But all that means is that you'll open Messenger if you click on a mail link in a browser window or other program.
The happy news here is that both browsers are very good. Even better is the fact that the developers are putting their energy into making the software more solid and easier to use, rather than adding dubious bells and whistles.