A Browser Worth Browsing

Microsoft's IE 4.0 upgrade usefully mixes desktop and Web-surfing functions

A few weeks ago, when Microsoft postponed the release of the next version of Windows into the middle of next year, most of the software experts just shrugged. That's because they knew that the piece of Windows 98 that matters most to people--Internet Explorer 4.0--would be out on time on Sept. 30.

The Internet Explorer 4.0 has lived up to expectations. It is a new look and feel for Windows 95 and NT--disguised as a Web browser. It takes many of the tricks that make Web cruising simple and applies them to your Windows desktop. Active Channel, the device that has been created to take you directly to Web sites of Microsoft business partners, is irritating, but the bottom line is easier-to-use Windows.

EASIEST TO USE. The browser component of IE 4.0 builds on Microsoft's already good version 3.02 and is at least the equal of Netscape Navigator 4.0. A number of improvements make the new Microsoft browser the easiest to use. I particularly like the way the History feature handles the list of Web sites that you have visited. In previous versions of the Internet Explorer, requesting the history gave you an all-but-useless alphabetical list of Web page titles. Netscape does better by opening a window that lists the pages in chronological order. The IE 4.0 opens a pane at the side of the browser window showing the sites that you've visited. Clicking on a site icon reveals the individual pages you read, and a click on the page opens it in the main browser window.

For the first time, Microsoft provides an E-mail application that is both powerful and easy to set up and use. It matches the features of Netscape's very good Messenger and provides some nice extras, such as the ability to fetch mail from multiple accounts, regardless of whether they are corporate post offices or Internet service providers.

What happens when you're not on the Net can be even more interesting. You can see the difference when you double-click on the My Computer icon. With standard Win95, you get a plain window showing icons for disk drives, printers, and other features of your system. Click a drive icon, and you add a window showing the folders and files on that disk.

In IE 4.0, double-clicking My Computer opens a version of the browser, with the same drives and devices in the window. Double-click a drive icon, and the window changes to show the drive's files and folders, plus a description of the drive itself. Single-click a file, and a description of it appears along with a thumbnail image--if it's a graphic file.

As you do this, rather than displaying what can be a confusing cascade of small windows in Win95, the IE version opens only one window at a time. You move between windows by using the same forward and back buttons that are familiar from Web browsing. And you can jump around using the history list of recently opened screens, which includes My Computer among the Web sites.

A less obvious difference is that the changes have made the Windows desktop a lot easier to customize. This feature will benefit users who didn't want to bother with the old process of creating shortcuts to their favorite programs or organizing programs in their start menu. Customizing desktops will become more important, though, as developers learn to use a piece of technology called Active Desktop to automate many Windows chores, such as updating software. Corporations will have the capacity to pump customized information directly to employees' desktops.

CONFUSING. Given these advantages, it's a shame that Microsoft gave such a prominent place to Active Channel, the most visible change in the browser. I found the channels, which range from Disney and Warner Bros. to The New York Times, confusing to set up. Active Channel was supposed to save time by downloading content in advance, but usually only a small sampling of the Web site is actually transmitted. The same criticisms apply to NetCaster, Netscape's equivalent. Perhaps the best thing about Active Channel is that you can get it off your opening screen. See the online version of this column at www.businessweek.com for directions.

In time, I suspect that the channels will either become useful or else fade away. In the meantime, however, IE 4.0 is a worthwhile upgrade, especially since, like its predecessors, it's free. (If you don't want to download 14 megabytes from www.microsoft. com, Microsoft will ship a CD-ROM for $4.95, and the software will also be turning up free on Microsoft Network CDs and on disks sent out by Internet service providers.) Everyone who uses Windows 95 or NT should give the new Internet Explorer a try.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.