George Lucases of the Internet set improve and rerelease browsers

Whether you're talking about Han Solo and Darth Vader or Netscape's Mark Andreessen and
Microsoft's Bill Gates, these long-running adventurers have caught the eye of moviegoers
and World Wide Web surfers alike.


I recently downloaded and surfed with the latest beta versions of Netscape Communicator
Preview Release 2 and Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 Preview Release.


Feature bloat has swelled them into the mega-megabyte range. The full versions sport
more features than anyone could possibly use, much less master, while holding down a real
job.


However, from their a la carte features, you can create your own superbrowser and
browse across the 21st-century bridge President Clinton wants to build.


The browser war seems to have turned into a components war.


The Netscape Navigator browser component has a redesigned interface and a nice new
overall appearance. There's a slick little task bar that gives quick access to other
Communicator components.


Navigator now supports cascading style sheets as well as its own dynamic style sheets.
It supports layering and absolute positioning under the World Wide Web Consortium's
working draft standard on positioning Hypertext Markup Language elements with cascading
style sheets.This should give software developers better control over what you actually
see on your screen.


Another nice feature is support for multiple user profiles. It's similar to user
profiles in the Microsoft Windows operating systems, taken to the browser level.


I saw no indication of the promised Microsoft ActiveX support.


The Composer component has what-you-see-is-what-you-get HTML editing and integrates
with Netscape's Collabra and Messenger components. Composer has improved table editing,
plus there's spell-check and easier image import and publishing features. Also, Messenger
offers built-in e-mail with rules and filters for server folders. You drag and drop images
in a message or text with HTML.


The Collabra component makes possible discussion groups and integrates reading and
posting to Internet newsgroups.


The Conference component boasts Unix-to-PC interoperability with an 800- by 600-pixel
whiteboard. It integrates with the Communicator address book for speed-dial and call logs.


The preview release performed pretty well in my limited testing. When you delve deeper
into the components, your mileage may vary. A word to the wise: Install carefully-you must
have at least 16M of RAM.


With Internet Explorer 4.0, Microsoft also has stormed into the components war with a
full array of weapons. Explorer previews the company's Active Desktop strategy, showing
new awareness of how people use browsers.


A caching system promises to make off-line surfing much smoother while improving
overall performance. There's support for the draft dynamic HTML standard that exposes all
HTML elements via an object model.


Explorer naturally supports ActiveX, and there are many other new features.


For e-mail there's the small, fast Outlook Express with Lightweight Directory Access
Protocol support and better in-box rules and filters. For conferencing and application
sharing, NetMeeting 2.0 provides T.120 and H.323 standards-based audio, video and data
conferencing.


For broadcasting, there is NetShow with client and server software that transmits
audio, illustrated audio and video on demand, as well as live IP multicast audio, video
and file transfers.


For HTML authoring, there's a small-footprint FrontPad with Java, JavaScript,
plug-in and ActiveX support, plus a wizard to build your own personal home page.


And for publishing, there are Personal Web Server and Web Publishing Wizard components.


Oh, I almost forgot the Active Desktop. Your Windows desktop wallpaper turns into a
customized personal Web page. It supports HTML content and drag-and-drop Web components
that update automatically. The Active Screen Saver can display your favorite Web site or
live links to Web pages. Your favorite sites and Find On the Internet icons can show up on
the Windows 95 or Windows NT Start menu.


Now I have to go recharge my light saber before the second beta round begins. To get a
feel for these new browsers, download the betas and take them for a test drive yourself.
For more information, or to download, see http://www.netscape.com and http://www.microsoft.com/ie.


Charles S. Kelly is a computer systems analyst at the National Science Foundation.
You can e-mail him on the Internet at ckelly@msn.com.
  This column expresses his personal views, not the official views of NSF.


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