Netscape and Microsoft have updated their Web browsers recently, but are you taking full advantage of the new features? This week Adam looks in detail at what’s new and improved (or new and lousy) in the two Web browsing behemoths. Also this week, Jeff Carlson examines eMerge, a program that lets you use mail merge features for personalizing email. In the news, Connectix updates Virtual Game Station despite being sued by Sony, and Bare Bones releases BBEdit 5.0.2.
Virtual Game Station 1.1 Released Despite Lawsuit — Connectix Corporation has shipped Virtual Game Station 1.1, an update to the company’s Sony PlayStation emulator, introduced at Macworld Expo in San Francisco. Few details were available regarding the changes in version 1.1, although Connectix did say that they’ve "enhanced compatibility and functionality," plus added additional security technology to prevent use of pirated PlayStation games. Most likely because of a lawsuit brought by Sony, it’s been impossible to purchase the $49 Virtual Game Station other than at the show, but Connectix’s online store expects availability by 06-Feb-99. Those who managed to purchase Virtual Game Station 1.0 at Macworld Expo can download a free 828K updater. [ACE]
Free BBEdit 5.0.2 Update Available — Bare Bones Software has released a BBEdit 5.0.2 update, free to registered owners of BBEdit 5.0 or 5.0.1. The 5.0.2 update rolls BBEdit’s FTP client into the main application, and includes a number of fixes to BBEdit and its HTML tools, along with support for nestable include files and the capability to select multiple items in many of BBEdit’s browser windows. The update, which Bare Bones recommends for all BBEdit 5 users, is a 1.9 MB download. [GD]
Like most people, I’m no big fan of unsolicited commercial email. Every day I’m offered credit card deals, home-based business schemes, and plenty of badly spelled invitations to visit adult Web sites. TidBITS has published articles about how to deal with spam (see "Responding to Spam" in TidBITS-442), and we also filed one of the first lawsuits under Washington State’s anti-spam law (see "TidBITS Sues Spammer" in TidBITS-439).
In our rush to blot out spam, however, we’ve obscured the fact that legitimate uses for direct email software do exist. I know, because I send out my share of bulk personalized messages on a regular basis using Galleon Software’s well-crafted program eMerge.
One to One, en Masse — One of the reasons for using computers, theoretically, is to make our lives easier. Instead of writing multiple variations of one email message, it’s much better to send one letter customized for several recipients, saving you literally hours of effort. In addition to addressing recipients by name, the outgoing messages can include information specific to each person. Shareware developers, for example, could notify existing customers of product updates, perhaps inserting appropriate upgrade information or unique registration codes with each message.
As another example, consider one of my clients, a company that organizes conferences. They regularly send thank-you letters to attendees following events. Granted, the message is mostly boilerplate, but addressing each person individually helps contribute a level of personal contact that encourages repeat business. More importantly, my client can easily use the information stored in customer databases without having to reinvent the wheel each time. Similarly, a band could send customized messages to fans in a particular area, with details of upcoming performances and even individualized driving directions.
Join the Campaign — Think of eMerge not so much as a bulk sender, but as the email equivalent of the mail merge feature found in most word processors. When you launch eMerge, you’re presented with an untitled "campaign," consisting of the Message Header (fields for Name, Address, and Subject), the Letter, and a List field. If you have Internet Config or Apple’s Internet control panel (part of Mac OS 8.5) installed, the Name and Address fields will be filled in with your information. After you’ve typed or pasted the text of the letter, you can customize it by choosing items from the Standard Variables and Custom Variables pop-up menus that match the structure of your List data (see below). Variables are indicated in colored text and marked with double greater-than and less-than symbols, as in this example:
Hello <<firstname>>! It’s great that you’ll be attending the <<lastname>> family reunion.
Editing the Custom Variables list lets you define variables specific to your source data; one of my clients, for example, wanted to alert customers whose contact information was inconsistent by displaying existing and new mailing addresses.
Building a List — If you’re planning to send to only a few addresses, you can enter them manually. However, in most cases you’ll want to import contact information from an outside source, a task made easy thanks to the many options for parsing contact data.
eMerge can import text files in a variety of configurations, including files exported from Claris Emailer, Outlook Express, LetterRip, and PowerMail, plus Netscape Address Book and Eudora Nicknames files. In my experience, tab-delimited text files work best; just select the radio button describing the arrangement of the data (such as Internet Address / FirstName / LastName). If your data isn’t structured according to the preexisting options, it’s easy enough to open the text file in a spreadsheet like Excel, rearrange the columns, then export the data again. A handy checkbox in eMerge’s Import window also lets you eliminate blank addresses.
If you don’t have pre-formatted data, you can use eMerge’s dredge feature, which scans a file or folder and extracts email addresses. This could be handy, for instance, for collating email addresses from Read Me files when asking for permission to include shareware programs on a CD-ROM. Although this is the most blatantly spam-like feature in eMerge, whether or not it’s abused is up to the user. Unlike unscrupulous spammers, Galleon downplays this feature on its Web site and in the documentation.
A campaign can also include attachments, and Galleon Software earns extra points for noting in their documentation that some mail servers can have troubles with attachments larger than 32K. They also receive bonus kudos for writing that multiple attachments "end up tying up a lot of storage space and generally contribute to the growing congestion on the Internet."
When it’s time to distribute your campaign, eMerge offers a preview of each outgoing message, making it easier to see if the list data is being correctly applied. When you’re ready to send, eMerge delivers the messages directly by default (it can also send through your normal mail server), using up to 24 simultaneous connections depending on the bandwidth available. When completed, each list item is marked with a status flag indicating whether the mail was sent or not, and the likely cause of each failure. Afterwards, you can export the list and include the status reports.
Legitimacy in the Woodwork — I suspect that there’s more of a demand for direct email than is apparent, since no legitimate business wants to be labeled as a spammer. In the end, the difference lies in approach: legitimate users will use eMerge responsibly to send personalized email to people who have asked to receive it. Spammers won’t bother to use eMerge since it lacks features for hijacking mail servers, forging headers, and trawling the Web for email addresses. With its straightforward approach and easy to use interface, eMerge seems to be the quiet program that’s getting the job done. eMerge is available for $99, and can be purchased online at Galleon Software’s Web site, or from select online vendors (including TidBITS sponsor Digital River). The eMerge installer is a 1.5 MB download, and a demo is available from Galleon.
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.