Basic problems with Microsoft's new Web browser -- which involve installation, access to World Wide Web sites and unexplained freezes -- are frustrating many early users, according to those interviewed by US Computerworld and hundreds of messages posted in online forums.
Ironically, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.0 matches or surpasses most of the features in Netscape's rival product, Navigator 3.0, say users and analysts who have tested prerelease versions of both packages But many users who downloaded the final version of Explorer 3.0 last week didn't get a chance to find out. Their difficulties included the following:
-- Seemingly dead links. When users tried to go to various Web sites, the browser didn't respond. It also didn't follow hyperlinks on some pages.
-- Cursor and mouse freezes. In some cases, users had to reboot.
-- Installation snafus. If a minimum 30Mb of disk space wasn't free to accommodate Explorer, the installation process simply stopped with no warning or explanation.
-- Flickering screens. Screen views can fade in an out like a loose lightbulb while loading Web pages. One user called them "poltergeist pages."
Further, users who want to run Explorer 3.0 on the current version of Windows NT are out of luck: The browser requires the final release of NT 4.0, but that product hasn't shipped yet. It is due this month.
"I hope Microsoft can get its act together, but I doubt it," says Gerry Bower, a network analyst at the Communications Research Centre of the Canadian government in Ottawa. Vexed by 3.0, Bower has reverted to using Explorer 2.0.
A Microsoft official says he knew about some of the problems users say they encountered last week. The vendor has posted descriptions and work-arounds at its Web site (http://www.microsoft.com/IESupport/content/Issues/).
For example, users who run Novell's Client32 package for accessing NetWare servers from Windows 95 PCs can't connect to Web pages smoothly, acknowledges Kevin Unangst, Explorer product manager. These users must insert special code and change some values in their registries.
But other difficulties, such as Web-access glitches when Client-32 isn't present, are news to Microsoft. "We haven't heard of it elsewhere," Unangst says. He says that the company also hasn't heard of the intermittent system freezes.
Most confusing, perhaps, is that some users are reporting no problems at all. Unangst maintains that despite Microsoft's neck and neck race with Netscape in the browser realm, the Redmond, Washington-based vendor didn't shove Explorer out of beta testing too soon. "We're very happy with the quality of the code as we've shipped," he says.
Unangst is advising users to file bug reports by telephone or at Microsoft's Web site. And filing they are. They have flooded Usenet and Microsoft's newsgroups with complaints. For example, while some users have been confused by Microsoft's leaving them no choice of disk drive for installing most Explorer files, others are plain mad.
Microsoft's elimination of user choice in this situation is "quite stupid", one angry poster says. "Pure arrogance," another says. Yet some loss of choice is to be expected, Microsoft officials say. The vendor is gradually making Explorer part of the Windows operating system, so some of the browser's executable files must reside beside Windows files, Unangst says.
But one user is not assuaged. "It bothers me to no end that Microsoft is updating various parts of the OS when you install its browser. It should have to play by the same rules as everybody else, using the OS as is," says Rob Burgess, an avid browser user in Montreal.
Another problem crops up in Microsoft's nonstandard implementation of style sheets. Style sheets are templates that define colour, layout and other aspects of building Web pages. Jennifer Jensen, a Web developer at Accessible Computer Systems in New Westminster, British Columbia, says margins set in spreadsheet-like tables, for example, are inexplicably lost when she tries to create them with Explorer 3.0.
Those glitches won't affect a majority of users, however, because most Web pages are built with the Hypertext Markup Language.
Yusuf Mehdi, a group product manager at Microsoft, admits that Explorer has played second fiddle to Navigator. "With 1.0, we were just getting into the business, and 2.0 was a catch-up to Netscape," Mehdi says. "Now we're ready to go."