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Columns & Editorials

February 26th, 1997

The Skinny

[The Bottom Line:] Internet Explorer is a solid product, which shows the value of breaking monolithic browsers into smaller programs which work together. If Microsoft continues to break the browser down, makes downloads appear in a separate window automatically, and improves the security of ActiveX, Netscape will find itself the loser in the browser war due to the merits of the competing programs, not Microsoft's marketing might.

Individual add-on components. Modest hardware requirements. Quickest browser available.

No 68K version. Uncertain ActiveX situation. No sub-windows.

Internet Explorer 3.0
Processor: PowerPC Only
Memory Needs: 4MB
Hard Drive Space: 2MB
Publisher: Microsoft

by: Jon Bodner ([email protected])

Most companies fear when Microsoft enters their niche. Usually, the strength of the Microsoft name is enough to wipe competitors off the hard drives of users. The actual merits of the programs is irrelevant; if Microsoft challenges you, you're in trouble.

Netscape is in trouble
Internet Explorer doesn't only compete by using the Microsoft name. It competes by being a far better browser than Netscape Navigator 3.0. In virtually every feature category, Internet Explorer is ahead. However, there are a few flaws, a large security hole, and an unfortunate reliance on the Code Fragment Manager which mar an otherwise excellent program.

Internet Explorer: plays well with others
The first thing you'll notice about Internet Explorer is that it's small. The browser part takes up less than 2 Megabytes of hard drive space, and requires about 4 Megs of RAM. However, if you use the Internet Mail and News program (based on Newswatcher) and install the Java software, you'll find that Internet Explorer is roughly the same size as Netscape.

What makes Internet Explorer nice on your hard drive is that you don't need to install all of the extra stuff. Personally, I don't need two mail readers, two news readers and two Java installations on my computer. Netscape forces me into that situation. Internet Explorer doesn't. While the ever-expanding size of hard drives and ever-decreasing cost of RAM makes this seem like more of a quibble, I prefer a browser which is designed to interact with other Internet software.

Internet Explorer expects that you've been using Navigator already. The first time it is started up, Internet Explorer asks if you want to import your Netscape settings and bookmarks. Internet Explorer even supports Netscape plug-ins for new multimedia formats. To make the transition from Netscape as smooth as possible, Internet Explorer is able to configure its icon bar to have the same icon set as Netscape. In order to better fit in with your current Internet tools, Internet Explorer uses Internet Config to choose default viewers, servers, username, and helper applications, something Navigator does not do.

Like all of Microsoft's recent applications, Internet Explorer has plenty of toolbars. Each of the bars can be re-ordered and re-sized to your heart's content. There's even a Favorites bar which can be used to store frequently accessed URLs on-screen.

The Java support in Internet Explorer is very good. Microsoft has adopted Apple's JManager to implement Java. This allows the choice of either Apple's own Macintosh Runtime for Java or the Microsoft/Metrowerks Java JIT (Just In Time -- a technique for executing Java code, similar to the dynamic recompilation 68K emulator in System 7.5.2 and later) implementation. Apple's is slow and stable while the Microsoft/Metrowerks version is much faster and less stable. Of course, if you don't want Java support, you don't need to install it.

Internet Explorer supports all of the same HTML tags as Navigator 3.0, plus a few Microsoft-only extensions. This really isn't an advantage as very few sites actually use these extensions. It feels slightly faster at rendering pages than Navigator, but that's more a subjective judgement than an actual measurement. Some people feel that Navigator is faster than Internet Explorer.

The most important difference between the two programs for me is stability. I had no end to my crashes when running Navigator 3.0 on my PowerBook 5300. Even when Navigator was sitting in the background, mysterious crashes would plague my computer. These crashes all but disappeared when I used Internet Explorer. Like measuring performance, it's hard to quantify stability. However, my computer could run for days with Internet Explorer. The same wasn't true with Navigator.

Internet Explorer isn't a perfect program. The biggest problem is, ironically enough, caused by Microsoft ignoring Internet Explorer's greatest strength. While the mail, news, and Java support are de-coupled from the main program, the FTP client and many multimedia viewers aren't. With Internet Config active, Internet Explorer will re-route FTP URLs to your FTP client of choice. Since IC is practically required for running Internet Explorer, why didn't Microsoft just create a stand-alone FTP client as another optional download? The same is true for multimedia types, such as QuickTime. Internet Explorer doesn't rely on plug-ins for many types. Rather, support for these types is integrated. There's no good reason for this.

Another minor annoyance is Internet Explorer's use of a single window to download a file using HTTP. Netscape automatically spawns a sub-window, which allows you to continue browsing while the download commences. Explorer's default action is to perform the download using the current window, preventing further browsing during the download. You can choose "New Window With This Link" from a popup menu by holding down your click on the link, but this extra step is a kludge.

ActiveX, Microsoft's home-grown answer to Java, is a serious bugaboo. Unlike Java applets, ActiveX controls are not cross-platform; a control for Windows 95 will not work on a Macintosh. More ominiously, ActiveX controls are not restricted in what they can do. Once download, a control can do anything any other program can, including destructive and malicious activity. (By comparison, all Java applets run in what's called the "Java Virtual Machine," a pseudo-computer running in the background. Applets are severely restricted in what they can do: no hard drive access is allowed and they can't make network connections to any computer but the computer they came from.) A group in Europe has demonstrated an ActiveX control which can do unauthorized transfers of money directly from your account by using information contained in your personal finance software. It is possible for an ActiveX control to be "signed," which means that a company has the option of indicating in the control that they created the control. Basically, if something goes wrong, you'll know who to blame after the fact.

Microsoft is well-aware of ActiveX's security problems, but the only answer Microsoft gives is be careful what you download. This is an unacceptable attitude. ActiveX is enabled by default in Internet Explorer 3.0. All users should deactivate it until Microsoft takes the necessary steps to ensure that it is safe.

Finally, Internet Explorer has been hit by the CFM-68K bug. Microsoft was on the cutting edge in adopting the Code Fragment Manager for 68K Macs, and due to the well-known bug in CFM support on 68K Macs, Internet Explorer is currently only available for PowerPC-based Macs. Apple should have this bug fixed soon, though, and Microsoft plans on releasing a 68K version at that time.

In conclusion
Microsoft has done what seemed impossible only a year ago: it has created a WWW browser which outshines Navigator in every important way. By creating a product which clearly reflects the Macintosh Way, Microsft has shown that they still get the Mac. The ball is now back in Netscape's court, and Macintosh users are the ones who will benefit from this competition.

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