Web browsers are probably among the least upgraded pieces of software, despite being essentially free and frequently updated. The TidBITS Web site still sees about 1,000 hits per week from people using MacWeb, a now-defunct Web browser bundled with early editions of Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh. The fact is, if a specific version of a Web browser works for you, why change? Eventually something encourages a switch, but it’s not uncommon for people to jump several versions at a time. I fully understand that inertia, but when both Netscape Communicator and Microsoft Internet Explorer reached version 4.5, I was eager to try them out. I wasn’t disappointed; both are decidedly better than previous releases.
Design Mentalities — Discussions with developers at both Netscape and Microsoft helped me place these releases in the context of the overall history of each program.
Netscape Communicator 4.5 offers relatively few feature enhancements to its Web browser – most of the important changes were to improve performance and enhance the mail and news components of the package, which I’m not looking at here. However, I was told by Netscape that if you don’t use the mail and news parts of Netscape Communicator, the program won’t load them into memory. In short, although using Communicator solely as a Web browser may waste disk space, it shouldn’t use much more memory than the stand-alone Netscape Navigator Web browser, which hasn’t been updated to 4.5. Internet Explorer’s memory model isn’t clear either: even when there’s plenty of memory available, Internet Explorer 4.5 can still complain it’s running critically low, especially with complex pages and multiple windows.
Netscape said that many fixes and new ideas are being held for the 5.0 version of Netscape Communicator, which will be the first open source release. That release will also reportedly feature a new page rendering engine plus additional standards support. If you have time on your hands, you can check out the pre-release versions.
With Internet Explorer 4.5, Microsoft added a number of new features to enhance the Web browsing experience. What hasn’t changed is standards support – Microsoft decided to put off improving standards support for the 5.0 release. With this decision, Microsoft walks a fine line – obviously, improving the Web browsing experience will benefit almost everyone, whereas relatively few Web users care about standards support. However, standards advocates have good reason to be vocal about their concerns, since support for open standards is the basis of the Internet.
Thinking about these two Web browsers, I realized that even the new or recently added features are moving along the same lines, making the two releases quite comparable. Let’s look at some of the similar areas, starting with the one everyone asks about: performance and stability.
Performance and Stability — Both Netscape Communicator 4.5 and Internet Explorer 4.5 are somewhat faster than previous releases. As I’ve discussed in the past, making statistically significant performance comparisons of Web browsers is difficult at best. So, I’ll say merely that both browsers feel faster than their previous releases… for about two days. After that, you stop noticing the change from the previous version, and they’re both too slow again.
I see stability as a similar situation – neither program is as stable or reliable as would be ideal. That said, there appear to be more anecdotal bug reports on the Internet about Internet Explorer 4.5 than about Netscape Communicator 4.5.
Navigation Enhancements — Netscape Communicator 4.5 now supports the Command-click shortcut Internet Explorer uses to open a link in a new window. Command-clicking a link is far faster and easier than using the pop-up contextual menus long supported by both browsers. Unfortunately, predicting where Communicator will open new windows is difficult (especially on multiple monitor setups), which reduces the utility of the feature.
For people without multiple monitors (or for whom multiple windows aren’t realistic) Microsoft added a feature called Page Holder to Internet Explorer. A new Page Holder tab on the left-hand Explorer bar lets you temporarily store a page for the purpose of quickly viewing its links in the main window. Microsoft aimed this feature at people who read headline-oriented sites and want to follow most of the links. I prefer to view such links in new windows, but if you do use Page Holder, note that you can and should expand the width of that pane so the page stored there is readable.
Printing — Microsoft has finally improved Web browser printing capabilities. I occasionally print a Web page of driving directions, a map, or even a TidBITS article I need on paper. Internet Explorer 4.5 provides a Print Preview command, and while viewing the page within the Print Preview dialog box, you can choose to shrink the page to fit, crop wide pages, or print wide pages. You can also print headers and footers (which include the page title, date, URL, and page number), the background (good to avoid in most cases), and images.
Although these printing features are a great start, they need work. First, the Print Preview dialog box is both oddly designed and system-modal, so you can’t do anything else on the Macintosh until you dismiss it. It should be either application-modal or even non-modal. Second, Internet Explorer can’t print multiple frames on a page, though you can choose which frame to print by clicking in that frame before choosing Print Preview. Finally, the Print Background checkbox could be interpreted as being related to background printing – better wording might be "Print Page Backgrounds." I’ve also seen a few cosmetic artifacts in the preview that didn’t appear in the printout.
Netscape doesn’t trumpet this fact, but Communicator 4.5 also includes improved printing capabilities. Hidden in a pop-up menu in the Page Setup dialog box are options that tell Communicator 4.5 to fit the Web page to a piece of paper while printing and to avoid printing the Web page background. These features are extremely welcome, although I’d encourage Netscape to make them more prominent and add a print preview.
Making Relationships — Microsoft beefed up support for Apple technologies by integrating Internet Explorer 4.5 with Sherlock (although support for Navigation Services is still lacking). Unfortunately, the three options aren’t useful. One lets you open Sherlock, another summarizes the page to the clipboard, and the third theoretically finds similar sites. This third feature would be great if it worked, but it makes searching more like working with Scooby Doo than Sherlock Holmes.
The reason this integration fails is twofold. First, Microsoft chose to feed Sherlock the first 100 characters from the META DESCRIPTION tag, if present, and if not, to work from the first 100 characters in the page text. In a case like an issue of TidBITS, where we have both META DESCRIPTION and META KEYWORDS tags, Sherlock would probably be better served by using our keywords. Working from the description is a good idea, but truncating it to 100 characters hamstrings the search. Searching based on the first 100 characters of the page text is generally useless in cases where the META tags don’t exist, such as our home page, since it hits our non-representative navigation bar text. Second, relying on META tags at all is error-prone, since most Web pages don’t include descriptive tags. Even when these tags do appear, their contents are often site-specific, not page-specific, which leads to inaccurate results.
Netscape chose a different approach. Communicator 4.5 includes the Smart Browsing feature that first appeared in Communicator 4.06. Smart Browsing encompasses two separate features: What’s Related and Internet Keywords (see below). What’s Related works with the Web catalog on Netscape’s NetCenter site to provide a listing of sites that are related to the site you’re viewing. It’s fairly accurate, returning sites like MacWEEK, Macworld, MWJ, and Apple when asked what is related to TidBITS.
However, What’s Related thinks only in terms of sites. For instance, I noticed on the Cornell University Web site that Joan Brumberg’s excellent book The Body Project had won an award, but when I check What’s Related while on the page about the book’s award, I get a listing of other universities, which are totally unrelated to the book. If you keep this limitation in mind, What’s Related should prove more useful.
Completion Freaks — Two new features in Internet Explorer 4.5, AutoFill and AutoComplete, make filling in forms on the Web much easier. AutoFill, which you access by clicking a toolbar button, automatically fills in your contact information (which you enter in the preferences) in Web forms. It accomplishes this by reading the form’s HTML and figuring out what information should go where. It’s brilliant; I can’t tell you how much I enjoy not entering my address and telephone number. Although Microsoft has explicitly told me they do not collect this information, if it bothers you, don’t use the feature.
AutoComplete works in any field but requires that you teach it words to complete, which you can do in the preferences or by Control-clicking a completed form and choosing Add to AutoComplete List. My only complaint is that AutoComplete also uses the AutoFill information, which means that if I type a 4 or a 9 in a field, AutoComplete tries to fill in my phone number or ZIP code (which start with those digits). Perhaps Microsoft could require the user to enter two or three characters before AutoComplete kicks in.
Although URL auto-completion was available in earlier versions of Communicator on other platforms, Communicator 4.5 is the first version to sport it on the Macintosh. Like Internet Explorer, Communicator now auto-completes URLs (and Internet keywords, see below) as you type them in the Location field. Unlike Internet Explorer, Communicator’s URL auto-completion doesn’t consider bookmark titles, which are the pages you’re most likely to want to revisit.
Netscape’s Internet Keywords feature is a nice touch. Whereas you’re used to being able to type "apple" in the Location field and go to www.apple.com, Internet Keywords routes entries in that field through a database at Netscape that attempts to go one better than DNS on looking up the name. So, you can type "Southwest Airlines" and end up at www.iflyswa.com or "Apple iMac" end up at the iMac’s Web page. Internet Keywords is only as good as its database, so if there’s no direct match, the Internet Keywords site redirects to a NetCenter search.
Bitter Better Bookmarks — One welcome enhancement to Netscape Communicator 4.5 is a bookmarks toolbar that displays user-specified bookmarks within the browser window. Plus, you can choose any folder of bookmarks to display in that toolbar by editing your bookmarks, then choosing Set as Toolbar Folder from the View menu. That command joins two other useful options, Set as New Bookmarks Folder and Set as Bookmark Menu Folder that let you determine where new bookmarks go by default and what folder displays in your Bookmarks menu. I found this handy when switching bookmark sets between browsers.
Internet Explorer has long featured the Favorites toolbar, and although I hadn’t previously realized this, it displays the contents of whatever favorites folder is called "Toolbar Favorites". You can thus switch between different folders in the Favorites toolbar by renaming folders.
Microsoft also slightly reworked the Favorites tab on the Explorer bar, demoting channels into Favorites (which is better from an interface point of view than the previous approach, but denigrates the channel technology to the point where no one will discover it). Also new in the Favorites tab are buttons for adding and organizing favorites.
Overall, the bookmark features of both browsers are just good enough that I no longer look for external bookmark utilities. Plenty of improvement is possible, though, particularly when working with the history of visited pages. Netscape Communicator desperately needs a persistent history and Microsoft could do some work on letting the user quickly filter the list of history entries.
Sizing Fonts — Netscape Communicator 4.5 now sports commands for changing the font size of a page, which is essential when you come across a site designed for Windows users. Because Windows thinks monitors use a screen resolution of 96 dpi by default, rather than the Mac’s 72 dpi, Windows-based Web designers often lower the font size so text doesn’t appear too large for Windows users. Mac users are then faced with tiny text that’s hard to read.
Although Communicator doesn’t have toolbar buttons for the View menu’s Increase Font Size and Decrease Font Size commands, there are keyboard shortcuts. In my testing, unfortunately, Communicator wasn’t able to change the font size on many pages reliably, although sometimes it seemed to be changing the font in tiny increments, thus requiring numerous invocations. With luck, this feature will improve in 5.0 and include some indication of how you’ve changed the font size.
Installation and Updates — Although it still requires that numerous files be installed into your System Folder, Internet Explorer adopted the drag-install and self-repair technologies from Office 98. This enables you to avoid running an installation program or worrying that you’ve thrown out some essential file, with the trade-off being an increased disk footprint. I like these technologies, but I’d prefer that programs didn’t need so many files in the first place.
Netscape Communicator has a SmartUpdate feature that purportedly helps download and install new versions of the software automatically. I haven’t seen it do anything yet, so I can’t say how well it works. For Internet Explorer 4.0, Microsoft used to provide a channel that could notify you of updates to Internet Explorer, but now that channels aren’t popular at Microsoft, there’s no automated notification or update help available.
Microsoft is proud of their drag-install and self-repair technologies; although they’re neat, I’d rather see effort being put into simplifying the update process. Netscape might be doing that with SmartUpdate, but it’s too soon to tell. Both programs could learn from Peter Lewis’s Anarchie Pro, which uses SIVC (Simple Internet Version Control) to check for updates and prompt the user to download them.
Making a Choice — In the end, I find myself using Internet Explorer 4.5, mostly for the same reasons I did seven months ago – Communicator has too many minor annoyances that bog down my Web browsing. There are those mentioned above, plus Communicator still redraws the entire page if you resize the window, and its history feature is still session-based and window-specific, which I find useless. And finally, the download status at the bottom of the browser window is often drawn over a barbershop pole display, which renders it unreadable.
I have fewer gripes about Internet Explorer, and the problems I do encounter don’t occur regularly. For instance, I’ve seen Internet Explorer 4.5 become confused when switching from a modem to a dedicated connection without quitting the program in between. Similar problems have occurred when I leave Explorer running on a PowerBook that moves between having a connection and being disconnected. Also, although you can rearrange the Favorites Bar, Address Bar, and Button Bar, Internet Explorer at times forgets the position of my Favorites Bar after I’ve moved it onto the same line as the Address Bar.
For me, then, fewer annoyances, plus Microsoft’s addition of AutoFill and AutoComplete, and vastly improved printing capabilities, make Internet Explorer my Macintosh Web browser of choice… for the moment. Netscape released Communicator 4.5 in the middle of October, and Internet Explorer 4.5 shipped at Macworld Expo in January, a short two and a half months later. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Internet Explorer’s new features appear in Communicator 5.0, along with other major improvements, and Microsoft undoubtedly has big plans for Internet Explorer 5.0, due sometime later this year. As long as Macintosh development on Communicator doesn’t lag due to America Online’s purchase of Netscape, we should enjoy continued improvements on both sides. Otherwise, there’s Opera, which might ship a Macintosh version one of these years.