Users who download the second beta of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 this week will get a good idea of what the final version of the browser will look like - "Webcasting" through Active Channels, integration with Windows, enhanced safety steps, and faster Java implementation.
"[The beta] basically is feature complete from our standpoint. We still want to get user feedback," says Yusuf Mehdi, product manager in the Internet Tools and Platform division. "[This beta] puts IE 4.0 out there as clearly the leadership product."
Microsoft, which is offering the second "preview" of Explorer 4.0 for free download on its Web sites and several mirror sites - is playing catch-up to Netscape Communications, which shipped its rival Communicator browser several weeks ago.
Microsoft also caught up to its Mountain View, California-based Internet rival in the content provider arena, announcing that more than 250 content partners - including MSNBC, Disney, The New York Times, CBS Sportsline, ESPN Sportszone, MTV, and National Geographic - will provide Active Channel content for Explorer. Content from 30 of those partners will be pre-configured with the browser and will ship on the Explorer CD and on new computers.
Explorer 4.0 will serve as an interface for Windows, letting users navigate from the Web to their hard disk and back. The tight linking of the two has raised many questions, however, as security problems have plagued Microsoft and other Internet companies in recent months.
Microsoft's browser market share is pegged at less than 30%, but the integration of Explorer 4.0 with Memphis, the next version of the dominant Windows operating system, is expected to up that share considerably.
Webcasting is Microsoft's "managed push" solution that will feed updated content to the Active Channels. The Internet Explorer Administration Kit 4.0, which has not been released yet, will let IT administrators manage content to users' desktops.
Other new features in the second Explorer 4.0 preview release include Security Zones technology; support for HTML 4.0 and Dynamic HTML; Package Management, which will enable the distribution of Java applets, scripts, HTML components, and ActiveX components through one pipeline to the desktop; and J/Direct, which will allow developers to bypass Java APIs and directly access the Win32 architecture.
Microsoft officials will not comment on when they will ship Explorer 4.0, which will be available free of charge, beyond saying "this summer." However, a letter from the company to its Solution Provider partners mailed last week indicate that the new browser will be released to manufacturing on August 30, with widespread availability in September.