WARNING: IE 5.01 SP1 breaks Office 2000 Help!

After issuing a warning Friday that Internet Explorer (IE) 5.01 Service Pack 1 (SP1) wasn't properly tested by Microsoft, I quickly received word from numerous readers that this release breaks the Help system in Office 2000. "Help requires Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 or greater," the warning reads. "You can install the latest version of IE from www.Microsoft.com." (Yes, they use that capitalization). And while this problem doesn't come as any surprise necessarily, it's still disheartening to realize that this company isn't doing what it needs to do to ensure that bug fixes don't introduce bugs of their own. Therefore, it is with some reluctance that I must advise users not to download and install IE 5.01 SP1, despite the fact that this is the only way--at least for now--for Windows 2000 users to upgrade Outlook Express and other non-browser components of IE. The more heavily tested IE 5.5, which will be released next week, should contain all of the fixes from IE 5.01 SP1, but Windows 2000 users will only be able to upgrade the Web browser with that release. None of the other IE components are upgraded in IE 5.5, if you're using Windows 2000. Why? I have no idea.

The strange saga of IE 5.x has me really wondering about version numbers, incompatibilities, and other issues. For some reason, Microsoft has an insane numbering system for IE, something that began back with the original release of IE 5.0. For example, the version number of IE in Windows 98 Second Edition (SE), released in May 1999, is 5.00.2614.3500. You might assume that the build number was 3500 or maybe 2614, but it's not: Instead, the build number is 1435, which is obtained by combining the last two digits of the first four-digit section with the first two digits of the last. When Windows 2000 was released with IE 5.01, the build number was 2000 (5.00.2920.0000). But IE 5.0 SP1 "upgrades" this to 0310 (5.00.3103.1000), which makes absolutely no sense at all. And don't get me started on the OE build numbers, which are even more difficult to understand, and bear no resemblance at all to the corresponding IE build numbers.

The Internet Explorer team has a history of not properly testing products, a problem I've been documenting for years. When IE was introduced into the Windows user interface, I railed against Microsoft for allowing such buggy technology to get its tendrils into the OS core. Each IE release has been followed, almost instantly, by a point release that's designed to fix problems with the original. And IE has had an amazing array of security and bug fixes, which seem to be issued on a regular basis. With IE 5.01+, however, these issues have reached a new low. Windows 2000 users cannot use the IE 5.5 installer to obtain Outlook Express updates; instead OE can be updated through IE 5.01 (which currently is an unacceptable release), or Windows 2000 Service Pack 1 (SP1), which hasn't shipped yet. Meanwhile, Windows Me, which was recently released to manufacturing, ships with a pre-release version of IE 5.5 (!), build 3401, rather than 3406, which is the final version.

The cynical among us might draw conclusions about the rapidly declining quality of IE during a period of time where Netscape has become marginalized. I'm not interested in the reasons, however: I just want this problem to be fixed. If you feel the same way, contact Microsoft and tell them to get their priorities straight

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