Is Microsoft trying to lock up the browser market?

As Microsoft releases its latest browser software, there are new concerns that the company might be using Internet Explorer4.0's tight integration with Windows to unfairly control the Web browser market - and Internet commerce in general.

As Internet Explorer fans await the release this week of the second beta of Microsoft's 4.0 browser software, there are new concerns that the company might be using its upcoming IE4 browser to unfairly control the Web browser market - and Internet commerce in general.

Much of the concern over Microsoft's tactics stems from a recent demonstration by California attorney Gary Reback, who gave a presentation to antitrust economists and the press last month at the University of California at Berkeley. Reback has previously represented clients in legal battles against Microsoft. He told News Radio today that, in the presentation, he showed symposium attendees ways in which the IE4 beta 1 downloaded from Microsoft's site discourages users from using another browser.

Reback apparently isn't the only person upset by how difficult Microsoft was making it for users to continue using Netscape's Navigator or any other browser. According to The Wall Street Journal, Netscape has contacted California Senator Barbara Boxer to complain about the design and marketing of IE4. Boxer reportedly wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission this month, asking the FTC to closely observe Microsoft's practices.

The scrutiny will only intensify as Microsoft works toward finalising the next version of Windows 95, now expected to ship in early 1998. The new OS, code-named Memphis, has an integrated IE4 browser, enabling users to browse not only Internet resources but files on their local machine or LAN.

But according to Jeff Silverstein of Probe Research, Netscape will have a hard time convincing the FTC or the Justice Department that even that practice is illegal. For one thing, Netscape still has the dominant market position in browser software, so it will have difficulty accusing Microsoft of unfair competition. What's more, Silverstein says, many users want the Web browser integrated in the operating system, and generally they're at liberty to give users what they want.

Kim Brown, an analyst with Dataquest, says he also doubts that the government would step in on this latest Microsoft-Netscape conflict. But he does think Netscape might use the situation to get some kind of compromise from Microsoft on setting Web standards. America Online, of course, has survived fine despite the fact that MSN gets a prime spot on the desktop of most new PCs that ship with Windows 95.

PC World contributing editor Scott Spanbauer says the flap over Internet Explorer 4.0 has been overblown in some published reports. For example, a San Francisco Chronicle article that appeared over the weekend criticized Microsoft for not allowing users to view Microsoft's Webcasting channels using Netscape Navigator. But at present, Navigator doesn't support Microsoft's Channel Definition Format or CDF, so it's impossible for Navigator to display Microsoft channels.

In any case, says Spanbauer, IE4 users can retain Navigator or any other browser as their preferred Web browser by going into the File/Options menu in Windows Explorer and setting up Navigator to handle the URL-http file type. Another option is to simply reinstall Netscape and, when prompted, instruct it to make Netscape the default Web browser.

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