Microsoft's much-anticipated Internet Explorer 5.0, the latest version of its Web browser, has been dubbed "useful" by some, but has been met with criticism from competitor Netscape Communications and the Web Standards Project, or WSP.
In this version, Microsoft is touting speed, ease of use, and a Windows Radio Toolbar, which lets users access and listen to online radio stations while browsing.
The Internet Explorer Administration Kit (IEAK) has been upgraded, with an easier-to-use interface, more options to customise the browser and restrict user access to certain features, and simplified network installation options, according to Microsoft officials.
Microsoft has formed partnerships with portal companies such as Yahoo and Lycos to produce custom-branded versions of the browser for each portal site.
Now, corporations and Web content providers will be able to create similar custom-branded versions of the browser using IEAK.
Internet Explorer 5.0 also contains improved search tools, including an enhanced AutoSearch feature that lets users type words and phrases into the URL field to find Web content.
The browser offers full support for Extensible Markup Language (XML) 1.0 and Extensible Style Language (XSL), as well as Vector Markup Language graphics description language and Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning remote file access protocol, according to Microsoft CEO Bill Gates.
Microsoft also confirmed at the Internet Explorer 5.0 launch that it will release an interim version of Windows 98 later this year.
Key enhancements in Windows 98, Second Edition, will include Internet Explorer 5.0; Internet connection sharing technology, which will allow home users to connect multiple devices to the Internet via a single PC; and simplified installation and registration.
Meanwhile, officials at browser rival Netscape, now a division of America Online, downplayed the Internet Explorer 5.0 product as a relatively minor release with a desktop-centric focus that misses the new developments on the Web.
According to a Netscape white paper, Internet Explorer 5.0 is too large at 50MB and lacks such standards as Resource Description Framework and the Document Object Model (DOM).
The WSP agreed with Netscape that Internet Explorer 5.0 falls short on standards support, and even issued a press release stating that such failures could lead to further fragmentation of the Web.
Although Internet Explorer 5.0 makes major improvements compared to Internet Explorer 4.0, the product will require extensive "work-arounds and debugging" by Web developers, the WSP stated.
The standards-related problems in Internet Explorer, as reported by the WSP, include, but are not limited to: failure to fully support Cascading Style Sheets 1.0; "spotty at best" support for DOM 1.0; bugs in Internet Explorer 5.0's interpretation of XML data; implementation of an experimental version of XSL that could result in incompatibility with the actual XSL standard when it is finalised; and bugs and missing features in HTML 4.0 support.
Users of Microsoft Visual Studio 6.0 may also encounter bugs in Internet Explorer 5.0. Microsoft this week published a list of incompatibilities between the browser and Visual Studio, including bugs related to the creation, debugging, and distribution of Dynamic HTML. Microsoft said it will release a service pack for Visual Studio 6.0 this spring to fix the problems.
In competing with Microsoft, Netscape is this month beginning the early release of a series of smaller, specialised browsers with the Gecko browser engine at their core, in a bid to deliver rich, Web-based applications and services through small, high-speed browsers that can run anywhere -- from traditional PC desktops to a wide variety of devices, according to the company.
The WSP claims that Gecko, although still in alpha testing, already shows more extensive standards support than Internet Explorer 5.0.
Gecko, initially on the 32-bit Windows, Mac OS, and Linux platforms, will offer full support for XML and partial early support for XSL, as well as include the Expat XML parser.
Full support for the World Wide Web Consortium's Cascading Style Sheets and DOM is also planned, according to Eric Krock, senior product manager for Navigator at Netscape.
Internet Explorer 5.0 is available now for Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT, Solaris, and HP-UX, with a Macintosh version planned for later this year. No Linux version is planned.
Microsoft Corp., in Redmond, Wash., is at www.microsoft.com. Netscape Communications Corp., in Mountain View, Calif., is at www.netscape.com.
The Web Standards Project, in Los Angeles, can be reached at www.webstandards.org.