IE 5.0: Trading Glitz for a Better UI

Hands On: Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer 5.0

The fifth generation of Web browser technology promises to usher in a period of advanced integration, simpler user interfaces and new possibilities for the Web. Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer 5.0 is the first of the new versions to emerge. Internet Explorer 5 represents the return of common sense to browsing, with improvements to the tool where it really matters: performance, stability and user interface. On the other hand, anyone expecting a revolution -- like the explosion of features that burst on the scene with version 4 -- will be disappointed. So will those who expected perfect compliance with recently adopted Web standards.

The previous version of Internet Explorer suffered from under-engineered and over-hyped features, such as "channels" ad content subscription. Many will appreciate how Microsoft has traded in the glitz for improvements in the user interface. In particular, the offline content viewing facilities, which allow the downloading of a favorite Web page for later viewing, are substantially improved.

Internet Explorer’s best user features include the ability to customize the toolbar and the new automatic completion features. Based on the IntelliSense technology first used in Microsoft Word, the AutoCompletion tool allows you to begin entering a URL into the address box and have Internet Explorer prompt with a list of similar URLs. The same auto-completion feature is available for forms, including those requiring usernames and passwords. That’s convenience, but it also means that if someone comes to your computer when you’re not there, they have access to your username and password combinations. That’s a problem, but Internet Explorer permits users to turn off the auto-completion at any time by choosing Tools, Internet Options and, under the Content tab, clicking the AutoComplete button.

One of our favorite new features is a mechanism for saving Web pages to local disk. In the past a Web page was captured simply as an HTML document. The new version preserves Web pages as a package, including local copies of graphics and live external links. While it consumes more disk space, the improvement to the user’s experience is worth it.

Much has been made of Microsoft’s incomplete support for key Internet standards in this release of the browser. It is barely comprehensible that Microsoft would fail to completely implement these standards, such as the Document Object Model and Cascading Style Sheets. Microsoft defends itself by demonstrating work-arounds and strategies that provide equivalent capabilities -- albeit with proprietary resources. It is a lame defense, but are the standards in question important? In our tests we found Internet Explorer’s implementation of basic style sheet features to still be flawed -- for instance, negative text indentation for paragraph tags. While that may seem somewhat arcane, the failure to deploy a standards-compliant browser means that the day when we can deploy new, platform-independent technologies on the Web slides even further into the future.

The improvements to the user interface come at a price: Internet Explorer's installed package is huge. On our machine, with Windows NT 4.0 and Service Pack 4 installed, it took a whopping 108 MB of disk space for the full install. When we added Microsoft’s productivity enhancements --highly recommended, but not included with the complete install -- the total was even higher. Clients choosing the typical install will find the numbers drop to about 55 MB -- still a hefty requirement in corporate settings where client disk space can be at a premium.

Once in place, developers will find some distinct advantages in the new release. Among the improvements is support for Java 2 -- a boon for developers of complex intranet applications. Since its release Microsoft has addressed a number of security problems with the new browser. It’s easy to download the patches from the security area on Microsoft's Web site, but it’s perplexing why the patches don’t appear at Microsoft’s otherwise useful Windows Update site.

Is Internet Explorer 5 for you? Enterprises that have standardized on Internet Explorer should find the upgrade a no-brainer. In corporate settings with a large number of clients, Microsoft’s new Internet Explorer Administration Kit (IEAK) is an essential tool for customization and deployment. We found the new version to be superior to IE 4’s IEAK with substantially improved set up wizards and easy installs for every platform but the Macintosh. The IEAK allows enterprise support staff to create up to 10 separate component installations and customize each one with either a locked or customizable feature set.

For enterprises reluctant to implement new software before their Year 2000 effort is complete, IE 5 may represent an opportunity. Installing the browser may assuage power users who, by the end of the year, will feel starved for new releases of software.

IE 5 requires little new training investment. Most of its user interface is similar to the previous version. With the combination of better stability, IEAK’s ease of deployment and low training costs, many larger sites should make the natural jump from IE 4 to the new version.

As for the legions of Netscape users, there is no new, compelling reason to move to Internet Explorer. Instead, the new release gives Netscape and the Mozilla Open Source project something to aim at in their soon to be released browsers. Considering the improvements from the user perspective alone, the new release of Internet Explorer gives the forthcoming releases of Netscape Navigator a lofty target.

Internet Explorer 5.0
Microsoft Corp.
One Microsoft Way
Redmond, Wash.
(425) 882-8080
www.microsoft.com

Price:
Internet Explorer 5 is free for download. CDs can be ordered for $6.95 plus tax from https://cdorder.one.microsoft.com/ie5/orderput.asp
Internet Explorer Administration Kit is available at www.microsoft.com/windows/ieak/en/corp/. A CD for the kit is available for $15.00 at https://ieak.microsoft.com/en/download/OrderCd.asp

+ Streamlined user interface
+ Redesigned offline content viewing
+ Improved administration kit for large enterprises
+ Integration of IntelliSense technology in forms and address box
+ Support for Java 2-based applications

- Very large disk requirements
- Incomplete support for key Web standards
- Support for Linux is unlikely
- AutoCompletion feature can be a potential security hazard