As the browser war rages between Netscape and Internet Explorer (IE), Microsoft has changed the entire battlefield.
With Internet Explorer 5's Web Accessories feature, any developer can create customized versions of the browser. Now you can search and surf the Web with a browser specially tuned for AltaVista, Excite, Lycos, InfoSeek's Go Network, MSN, Snap, Yahoo, or other sites. Each portal can tweak IE5's user interface and integrate a plethora of custom features into toolbars, bookmarks, separate frames, and shortcuts. It also can deliver headlines, e-mail notification, and stock quotes.
Analysts say this customisation is the latest weapon in the ongoing browser brouhaha. Microsoft says a parade of content sites are preparing to build extensions to IE5.
But what happens when you install such a custom browser -- and don't like it?
A Bundle of Browser Options
You do get some potentially helpful enhancements with the custom versions.
For example, with AltaVista's branded browser, you can open a separate frame at the bottom of your browser to stream headlines and a live stock ticker. A Go version embeds the search client Express InfoSeek as a drop-down menu option. Excite's IE5 browser comes preloaded with Favorites, direct toolbar links to Excite Mail and My Excite, and a customised Media Player with Excite audio/video search.
"This is a great strategy for IE5," says Barry Parr, analyst at International Data Corp. "This gives Web developers a reason to push IE5 over Communicator." At the same time, experts say, antitrust lawyers can't accuse Microsoft of making any exclusive deals.
Ironically, AOL's Netscape Communicator 4.5 browser is taking a proprietary approach. Netscape has added numerous proprietary features that integrate Communicator with Netcenter. Microsoft's latest move will likely be met with an even more "openness" by the Communicator 5.0 browser expected mid-year. "This is going to start a whole new one-upmanship between IE and Communicator," says David Kerley, analyst at Jupiter Communications.
A One-Way Trip?
But be forewarned: Once you've installed a custom version, there isn't an easy way to return your browser to its original form.
It's easy to do the download and installation. Typically, once you've downloaded IE5, the added customisation requires a 1MB download -- tops.
Excite's IE5 installed quickly. After I launched my new browser, IE5 looked like billboard advertisement for Excite. My Favorites directory was packed with Excite Channels, Tools, and Fun Stuff links. Excite now owned my toolbars, changed my home page to Excite, and configured IE5's integrated search pane to search only with Excite.
Customisation is mostly modular, so you can remove features you don't like.
AltaVista, for example, puts a translation button on IE's navigation toolbar, making it easy to access and use this feature. To get rid of the button, you need to visit the Toolbar Properties menu and remove it manually. You must also remove shortcuts in the Links toolbar manually. And some features, like browser color and design, can't be removed -- only overwritten.
The only way you change the look of the browser is by installing a new portal scheme on top of the previous one. And even then, you're left with old buttons, Shortcuts, and Favorites. It's not hard to delete these things, just a hassle.
Uninstall? Sorry, You Can't
If you want to get back to basics and browse with the original, you can't, say Excite and AltaVista.
Both told me I would have to uninstall IE5 and reinstall it. This is the only way to get rid of all the customised browsing elements, they say.
And I don't want to be one of the first people to uninstall IE5. It's true that I am a trained professional, but Microsoft's history with IE uninstalls is not reassuring.
With users' portal loyalty low, according to experts, it's a shame that you can't easily switch from, say, a Yahoo browser to a Snap browser. Tailor-made versions of IE5 will heat up the browser war, but they will also get some of us hot under the collar.