We live in magical times when Microsoft hosts a launch, drinks and all, for a product it cannot sell--and a beta version at that. But thus it was last week when Team MS gathered to launch Internet Explorer 3.0 Beta 2, the latest iteration of Microsoft's Web client.
Perhaps it's the fact that MSIE still only has about 5% of the local market, but the earnestness is palpable. Somebody had even gone to the the trouble of baking dozens of biscuits, each iced with a blue and white Explorer logo.
Is this a cryptic way of pointing out that Microsoft now gives end users the choice of having their activities written to a cookie or not--and Netscape doesn't? Well, no ... So, did the Microsoft PR dynamo proferring the sugary treat bake them herself?
"Of course not!" she snaps, in a caring, sharing way. "And there's no computer at that back desk--you move over with them instead. Okay?"
Um, okay. Terry Allen, Microsoft's Internet business manager, begins his spiel and the schoolboy within takes over. We begin to play with the browser on our desktop. Does this thing perform as advertised?
Remember the ActiveMovie versus QuickTime spat, which ended with enraged Microserfs screaming that ActiveMovie did everything QuickTime did--and more? Well, whatever form of ActiveMovie is allegedly bundled into IE 3.0, it fails to do one thing that QuickTime does--play QuickTime movies. No pictures, no sound, no MIDI and not even a whisper of QuickTime VR. Gee, wonder if that licensing offer's still open?
Things improve as I do something quite remarkable--request, verify, download, and install an ActiveX Control. It all happens very, very transparently, the Verisign authentication certification looks nice and official and it barely seems to matter that I don't end up using the function it offers--a pop-up menu. Okay, ActiveX is just OLE with the fat sliced off it, but when 80% of all Netscape users still can't install plug-ins, it works. It really works.
And Java? It works too, mostly. Explorer, which now totes its own, integrated JIT compiler, runs a selection of applets pretty smoothly. The only applet that doesn't run is the one embedded in the Gamelan home page, but this may have something to do with the fact that Netscape and Microsoft can't agree on embedding tags. Anyway, Explorer's Java is faster than Netscape's and will be so until Netscape can rip its own compiler and make room for Java in its plug-ins architecture, where everyone can have a crack at it.
Allen demonstrates NetMeeting, Microsoft's telephony and collaborative workgroup app, which uses Explorer as a base. ActiveX lets two or more people using NetMeeting fiddle with the same spreadsheet document over the Internet--providing one of them is running a copy of Excel. A brief shudder goes through the room when I suggest that this trick would be even better if nobody was running Excel. Whoops, sorry, that'd be OpenDoc, wouldn't it? More to the point, that'd be a disincentive for people to buy Microsoft Office. There's a limit to this free software business, buddy ...
Microsoft Office itself is at the centre of the afternoon's star turn--a brief look at the Explorer 4.0 alpha, which is to become both Windows GUI and omnipresent Web browser in the Office suite. This is good technology, and even better business--but now that Microsoft has joined the world of hyper-speed development cycles and muscled-up Web clients it is discovering the pitfalls.
Explorer 3.0 Beta2 is the kind of curate's egg we're becoming used to in the Internet realm. It has fancy conferencing support, but can't play QuickTime as advertised. It has an impressive JIT Java compiler, but still doesn't have a caching strategy.
It is emphatically a contender--but no matter how good Explorer 3.0 gets as it rushes towards release, it will be poison until its installer is restrained from incorrectly overwriting .DLL files in the host Windows system, disabling features in Paintshop Pro, Netscape and others. As Phil Parent says, if it makes the trains run on time, he's for it. But let's not have any derailments on the way, okay?