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Microsoft Unveils Internet Explorer for Mac

When Microsoft became a licensee of NCSA Mosaic and later shipped a Web browser for Windows called Internet Explorer, the Macintosh world didn’t even blink. Microsoft was just another company jumping on the Internet bandwagon: what did another Mosaic-derived browser for Windows matter? "Internet Explorer" was dubbed "Internet Exploiter," and that was that.

Late last year, Microsoft announced plans to bring Internet Explorer to the Macintosh. Of course, the Macintosh world barely blinked at this news. What could Microsoft – a company not known for its Internet savvy and whose recent mainstream Office applications for the Mac have met with less than unbridled enthusiasm – bring to the table that Netscape, InterCon, and TradeWave could not?

Well, last week Microsoft released a public beta of Internet Explorer for Macintosh and proved it can still surprise the Mac community.

Where to Find It — Microsoft has made the first beta Internet Explorer 2.0 available on their Web site. (Apparently it’s numbered 2.0 to maintain parity with the Windows version.) Versions are available for both Power Macintosh and 68K Macs, and each download is about 1 MB in size. macdl.htm

Internet Explorer requires a Mac with a 68030 processor or better, System 7.0.1 or later, and a at least 8 MB of memory (but see below for more memory details). The beta may be used until a final version is available, at which point users are required to obtain the final version and register with Microsoft (for free).

Basic Features — Based on NCSA Mosaic, Internet Explorer is an HTML 2.0-compliant Web browser that supports a selection of HTML 3.0 tags (including tables), many Netscape HTML extensions, and a number of its own extensions. Unlike Mosaic, Internet Explorer can load Web pages through multiple TCP connections, and progressively renders a page so users can examine the content before the page is fully downloaded. (These are the same features that originally gave Netscape a performance advantages over earlier browsers.) Explorer supports FTP, gopher, news, and mailto URLs, progressive rendering of GIF and JPEG inline images, backgrounds, text selection in the main window, and a bookmark feature (called Favorites). Explorer also has a bizarre history mechanism where pages you’ve seen can be listed at the end of the File menu, in a modeless History window, or in a pop-up on the browser window.

In terms of interface, Internet Explorer is very much a "post-Mosaic" application and breaks little new ground. The top of the browser window holds a text field for the currently-loaded URL as well as the obligatory button bar, although Explorer’s is cluttered.

Internet Explorer includes preliminary support for AppleScript, although it’s unfortunately modeled after Netscape’s and does not support the GetURL event. This beta version of Internet Explorer also does not support Frontier menu sharing or Internet Config.

What’s New — In a good move, Internet Explorer’s button bar sports controls that proportionally increase or decrease the size of the text displayed in the entire page. This is handy for viewing pages "enhanced" for Internet Explorer (which invariably come across in tiny 10-point type on the Macintosh), or for people who need (or want) larger type on their screens.

In place of Netscape’s animated "N" indicating a page is loading, Internet Explorer features either a spinning globe or an animated version of the Windows logo – a move sure to earn Microsoft lots of friends in the Mac community.

In a step ahead of other Web browsers, Internet Explorer handles a number of audio formats without helper applications, including Sun .au, AIFF, and Windows WAV. Additionally, Internet Explorer handles QuickTime movies by itself and supports inline AVI (Video for Windows) movies. Oddly, it does not come preconfigured to handle other common file types, including BinHex or StuffIt archives, and Explorer’s interface for configuring helper applications is weak (although I haven’t seen any Web browser handle this well.)

Internet Explorer also has predefined "home" and "search" pages, which you set in Explorer’s awkward, tabbed Options dialog box. When launched, Explorer tries to connect to its home page, which by default is set to the Microsoft Network Web site. Unless you want Explorer to try to connect to the Internet every time it’s launched (potentially dialing your modem and racking up phone charges), set the home page to an HTML file on your local hard disk. There’s currently no way specify you don’t want a page loaded at startup.

Explorer can be configured to show HTTP server messages (useful for some people), and Explorer’s HTML parser and layout engine both seem fast.

Road Testing — In my tests over a 28.8 Kbps modem, Internet Explorer performed respectably, but not significantly faster or slower than current versions of Netscape. Reports from users with faster connections indicate Explorer may outperform Netscape in some cases.

Although this is an early beta, a few missing items did stand out. Explorer offers no key commands for simple navigation or some common menu commands, and the Find command doesn’t always scroll the browser window to the found text (particularly if the page contains tables). Users of Netscape 2.0 will find Explorer’s bookmark-management features lacking, although, when first launched, Explorer will offer to use your Netscape bookmarks and configuration. Explorer’s newsreading capabilities are functional, though not outstanding.

The most troubling aspect of Internet Explorer is its memory usage. Explorer says it requires 4 MB of RAM; maybe I’m spoiled, but when I give an application 4 MB of memory, I expect it to stay there. During normal use, Internet Explorer uses significant amounts of temporary memory in the system heap to store information. Although this is a perfectly acceptable technique (used by programs like BBEdit to great effect), I watched in astonishment as Explorer increased the size of my system heap from about 4 MB to over 11 MB in under twenty minutes. Admittedly, I was doing intensive browsing to test Explorer’s bounds, and Explorer does relinquish this temporary memory when you quit. However, it’s too easy to get in trouble with this scheme, resulting in a bloated system heap that prevents you from launching other applications and possibly requires you to restart. As an experiment, I configured my machine so Explorer would only have access to a little system memory; in that case, Explorer correctly used space in its own partition, but its performance quickly deteriorated and the program eventually locked up.

Let’s Play <TAG> — The beta currently supports a number of Netscape extensions to HTML, but it does not support frames or other Netscape extensions introduced with Netscape 2.0. In a unique approach, Internet Explorer can pose as a version of Netscape, thereby receiving any Netscape-specific content that server might provide. (Some sites, like Yahoo, serve different content depending on your browser.) It’s unclear to me if there’s any point to identifying yourself as Netscape 2.0 when no Netscape 2.0 features are supported.

In a move that reminds me of two schoolyard bullies comparing the size of their muscles (or other parts of their anatomy), Microsoft followed Netscape’s dubious lead and introduced its own set of HTML extensions with Internet Explorer. These tags suggest that Microsoft doesn’t understand the point of HTML. Among Microsoft’s "innovations" are tags that make sounds play when a page loads (these can’t be turned off); specify a particular typeface (I’m not even going to start on why that’s a bad idea); add the ability to embed AVI movies in image tags; and give ability to specify "margins" for an HTML page (which basically guarantee you’ll have to resize your browser window in order to read the text). Fans of the Netscape extension <BLINK> will love Microsoft’s <MARQUEE> tag, which may only serve as proof Netscape exercised some restraint with its HTML extensions.

Conclusions — The word on the street is that the Mac version of Internet Explorer is being developed by a set of "real" Macintosh programmers from companies like Claris and Radius, rather than by Windows programmers in Redmond. This is certainly reflected in the first beta of Internet Explorer, which is surprisingly Mac-like given Microsoft’s recent history with Macintosh applications. The potential of Explorer is undeniable, and with Java support (Microsoft is a Java licensee) and support for Netscape and Explorer plug-ins, the picture gets more interesting. With better memory management, interface improvements, and support for technologies like Internet Config, Internet Explorer could become a significant alternative to Netscape Navigator. For this to happen, though, the program must successfully fend off the weight of Microsoft’s Windows-centric Internet strategy.

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