How Microsoft Lets You Build Your Own Browser

The company is giving consumers more choices in Web-surfing software

Last weekend, I created a Web browser. It's not a very good browser, but then I'm not a very good programmer. Still, it's fully functional, and the task took me only a couple of hours. If you want to see what a journalist who hasn't written a serious program in a decade can do, download a copy from the BUSINESS WEEK Web site (www.busi er.htm).

Why should you care? Because the ease of creating a new browser means that consumer choice in Web software could explode--not disappear as the Justice Dept. fears in its antitrust suit against Microsoft. And oddly enough, Microsoft itself is responsible. At least four new browsers based on Microsoft's Internet Explorer have appeared; not bad for a dying market segment.

The visible part of Internet Explorer--the browser window you get when you click on the IE icon--is just the top layer of a collection of software components that provide Internet access in Windows. All these other pieces are available to any programmer with a copy of programming languages Visual Basic or C++. Microsoft even offers do-it-yourself instructions on the Web ( brow.htm).

Developers gain two advantages from this arrangement. First, Microsoft has done the hard work. A browser is expected to run Java applets, display graphics of all sorts, play audio and video, and pull off other feats, all of which require complex software. Even the simplest browser built on the IE platform can do these things, because the basic software is part of Windows.

Leaving the hard work to Microsoft allows other developers to focus on the special features and unique look and feel that will distinguish their browsers. ibm's Lotus Development gave up on trying to write its own browsers and chose the IE platform for Notes 4.5. The result is a browser that works well and has a distinctive Notes look. The KidDesk Internet Safe browser from Edmark, another ibm division, is based on IE, as is MediaLive's Surf Monkey, another "kid safe" browser.

A second advantage comes in getting the product to consumers. Online distribution is an attractive way to ship Internet-based products, especially for smaller companies that struggle for shelf space. But long downloads frustrate consumers. Netscape Communications' Navigator browser requires a minimum 8 mb download--at least 45 minutes on a 33.6 kilobit-per-second connection. Because it uses IE components already part of Windows, Bigfoot's NeoPlanet browser is just 791 kb and can be downloaded in five minutes.

Microsoft archrival Netscape could benefit by using the Microsoft tools, since it could then focus its programming efforts on profitable server software. But Netscape, cherishing its independence, will continue writing browsers from scratch. Julie Herendeen, Netscape's director of client marketing, says that while it is technically feasible to use IE components, the company has no intention of doing so. The reason: By conceding fundamental design decisions to Microsoft, Herendeen says, Netscape "would no longer have a role in driving standards for the Internet. It's a good thing to have at least two major voices, and it's very important for Netscape to continue to be involved."

NO SURRENDER. Netscape will rely on other companies to supply the code to run Java in future browsers but won't surrender control over the basic browser. Netscape also is opening Navigator to greater customization by making the original programs available to any developer. But rewriting this code is harder than using Microsoft's modular approach.

Netscape has a point about the need for diverse views, but its significance to consumers is unclear. I think that what really matters to the folks who just use computers for work, study, or play is that they have meaningful choices. And the products built on IE provide those choices.

The government's case against Microsoft assumes that unless something is done, Internet Explorer will soon be the only browser. Microsoft may be guilty of anticompetitive behavior, particularly in the onerous licenses it imposed on computer makers and Internet service providers. And I hope many makers follow the lead of Gateway and nec and ship Netscape on their machines. But the evidence suggests the design of IE should encourage, not kill, alternatives. In this area, at least, Microsoft is getting a bum rap.

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