Internet Explorer 3.0

Microsoft's latest Web browser, Internet Explorer 3.0, has what it takes and then some.

Jonathan Chau

October 31, 1996

9 Min Read
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Microsoft's latest Web browser has what it takes and then some

Quick, what does Internet Explorer(IE) mean to you? If you're like most Netscape Navigator users, you probablythink of Microsoft's Web browser as just a throw-away application. IE1 and IE2certainly paled in comparison to their arch rival, Netscape's bigger, faster,and more powerful Navigator (for information on the latest Netscape Navigator,see the sidebar, "Netscape's New Navigator."). However, Microsoft hasshipped IE3, and it delivers a crushing blow to Netscape's pièce de résistance.The final version of IE3, which I review here, has a new look, expandedHypertext Markup Language (HTML) support, optimized performance, free contentoffers, and a plethora of--dare I say it--cool new features.

Installing IE3
Installing the full version of IE3, a 9.8MB download, is straightforward.The setup program scans your system for existing versions of IE. If theinstaller finds a previous version, it puts IE3 in the same directory andrenames the old version to ie#.exe, (# is the version number). By having IE3rename your previous version, Microsoft gives you a fallback in case IE3crashes. IE3 also scans for Netscape bookmarks and converts them to IE3favorites. This convenience is handy if you have a lot of bookmarks. After aquick reboot, you're up and running with IE3.

A New Look
The first feature you notice is the new user interface (UI), which resemblesthose of Microsoft's Cinemania and Encarta. The new UI is more pleasing to theeye than Navigator's industrial-strength interface or previous versions of IE. Anice aesthetic touch is that the toolbar buttons change from monochrome to colorwhen you move the mouse cursor over them.

The toolbar includes the standard back, forward, and home buttons, and youcan have one-click access to features that are usually buried in menus. Forexample, the Font button lets you change font sizes without opening a dialog.Sliding toolbars, such as the Links toolbar, let you save screen space bytucking them away.

The IE3 UI is highly customizable. For example, you can remove components(such as toolbars) that are stationary in other browsers.

Frame and Plugin Support
IE3 matches Netscape Navigator 3.0 feature for feature, and Microsoft upsthe ante by adding new capabilities. For example, IE3 supports frames, whichNetscape first introduced, but goes further by supporting borderless andfloating frames. IE3 also supports the Cascading Style Sheets standard, althoughthe rest of the industry isn't following suit. This standard lets HTML authorsand Web developers use style tags to create rich Web pages with desktoppublishing-like control.

To help users migrate from Netscape to IE, Microsoft added support forNetscape plugins. My tests show that IE3 supports most major plugins, althoughMicrosoft doesn't guarantee 100% compatibility. I downloaded five popularNetscape plugins: Shockwave for Director from Macromedia (for information aboutShockwave, see Eric Shanfelt, "Shockwave Rocks Multimedia Development,"September 1996), VDOLive from VDOnet, Crescendo from LiveUpdate, Adobe's AcrobatReader, and ichat's namesake plugin. Each plugin installed and ran as smoothlyas on Netscape.

ActiveX Interactive Objects
At the heart of IE3 is Microsoft's Distributed Component Object Model(DCOM), which uses the much-hyped ActiveX controls. ActiveX is Microsoft's namefor OLE Custom Controls (OCXs) modified to run over a network (in this case, theInternet or an intranet). (For information about DCOM, see Keith Pleas, "NT4.0's Distributed Component Object Model," September 1996. For informationabout ActiveX, see Microsoft's ActiveX page

ActiveX objects (controls) extend a basic Web browser'scapabilities. With ActiveX controls, you can embed interactive objects in staticdocuments, as you can with Java applets. For example, real estate agents whodescribe a house on the market with text and pictures can now use an ActiveXcontrol to display a 3D rendition of the house. The ActiveX control letsprospective buyers take a virtual walk through the virtual house with fullfreedom of movement. A good example of ActiveX in practice is XpressNet'sDistance Learning site (

Citrix's WinFrame ActiveX control lets you run a remote Windows applicationwithin the context of IE3. So if you have a sufficiently speedy connection tothe Internet (or are working on an intranet), this approach can be a goodalternative to NT's Remote Access Service (RAS) or to using products such aspcANYWHERE. I often use the WinFrame ActiveX control to connect to an NT Servermachine in another state to remotely run database applications on that hostsystem. I access this machine over a TCP/IP connection, so I save money becauseconnecting to my Internet Service Provider (ISP) is a local call.

Many Netscape plugin authors have already converted their plugins toActiveX controls. This conversion means you can view Shockwave files or watchVDOLive broadcasts from within an HTML document instead of having to spawn anexternal viewer.

The beauty--and potential danger--of ActiveX is that you don't have toactively seek out extensions. They automatically download and install on yoursystem as needed. Because ActiveX controls contain executable binary code, theycan make system calls. This ability to access your data leaves the door wideopen for virus and trojan horse attacks because ActiveX controls downloadwithout user intervention.

However, ActiveX controls can be safer than equivalent Netscape plugins.Developers digitally sign their ActiveX controls with Microsoft's Authenticodecryptography technology. Before your system installs a control, IE3 displays acertificate with the name of the control, the name of the publisher, and theexpiration date of the certificate. Unlike conventional forms of softwaredistribution (such as retail), you can't always be certain that a softwarepackage distributed on the Internet hasn't been tampered with. ActiveX SoftwarePublisher Certificates ensure that the code you download is pristine.Certification firms, such as Verisign, offer code certificates based on standardX.509 and Public Key Cryptography Standards (PKCS) formats. Screen 1 shows asample certificate. When you receive a certificate, you can evaluate it forauthenticity and decide whether to install or delete the control. You can aborta download if someone's tampered with the certificate (e.g., changed the name ofthe control, name of the publisher, or expiration date). This approach can besafer than manually downloading and installing plugins, which have nocertification process. Other than using PKZIP's authentication algorithm toverify distribution archives, you can't check whether a plugin has been tamperedwith or modified.

IE3 is an ActiveX control that lets developers embed the browser inthird-party applications. For example, the new 32-bit America Online andCompuServe clients are heavily modified IE3 interfaces that allow tighterintegration with the desktop.

Although including ActiveX in IE3 is a great boon to NT users, Mac usersare out in the cold. Most ActiveX controls are DLLs, which the Mac OS doesn'tsupport. Microsoft says it will bring COM to the Mac with ActiveX, as part ofIE3.0 for the Macintosh, by the end of 1996.

Java Support
IE3 also incorporates an excellent implementation of Java. Because IE3 usesa just-in-time (JIT) compiler, IE3 can convert Java byte codes to native Win32code. This conversion means Java applets can run from two to 10 times fasterthan usual. Because most Java applets travel over the Internet, speed isessential. If you load Java-enhanced Web pages, you notice that your new33.6 Kbits- per-second (Kbps) modem creeps along while the Java applets load.Fortunately, IE3 compresses and stores Java class libraries locally tosignificantly speed applet load times.

And Microsoft's Java implementation is fast. To see exactly howfast, I put IE3 up against Pendragon Software's CaffeineMark, the de factoindustry standard Java benchmarking tool. I ran the tests on a Pentium 166MHzmachine with 32MB of memory, running an ATI Mach64 Graphics Pro Turbo PCI card.CaffeineMark 2.01 performs nine throughput tests to gauge overall performance.The tests include prime number sieve tests, integer loops, floating point tests,graphics rendering, and logic tests. Graph 1 shows the performance comparisonbetween Navigator and IE3. As you can see, IE3's Java Virtual Machine (VM) isclearly faster than Navigator 3.0's in most categories.

Microsoft seems to be supporting Java as a supplement to the ActiveXstrategy. This marriage of opposing technologies works well and gives end usersthe best of both worlds. With Microsoft's Visual J++ compiler, you can evenwrite ActiveX controls in Java code.

Free Content
As an incentive to entice new users, Microsoft teamed with various contentproviders (such as ESPNET and The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition)to give IE3 free access to Web sites that ordinarily carry a surcharge. Thispromotional push was a controversial move that has met with protest andresistance (particularly for The Wall Street Journal, which had itsintegrity questioned on its own Web site). In the end, however, thesevalue-added premiums make diving into--or at least testing--the IE3 pool hard toresist.

IE3 also comes with Internet mail and newsgroup clients. Although theseclients are on the bare-bones side (relative to commercially available clientssuch as Eudora Pro and Agent), they are functional enough for basic needs.

Working Out the Kinks
IE3 was available for public beta testing before its official release, butsome problems and anomalies apparently slipped through the cracks. For example,clicking on a link while a page was loading often resulted in IE3 loading ablank page.

NT users who have migrated to RISC platforms (such as MIPS or PowerPC) willhave to stick with NT 4.0's IE2 for now. IE3 is available only for Intel x86machines. Microsoft says RISC versions of IE3 will be available shortly,however.

The Road to IE4
IE3 is Microsoft's first step toward integrating the Web with the operatingsystem. IE3's integration with the Windows NT shell extends the document-centricapproach to HTML and traditional file types such as Word documents and Excelworkbooks. This approach blurs the distinction between local and networkdocuments. Such integration provides a central shell from which to loaddocuments regardless of file type.

Because IE3 is an OLE container, you can load OLE-structured storage fileswithin the IE3 frame, as you see in Screen 2. This approach unifies allsupported document types. Corporations turning an intranet into a collaborativegroupware system will appreciate this unification. For example, you can nowplace a link to a Word document on an HTML document. When you click thatdocument, IE3 seamlessly launches Word from within the browser, so you can workon the Word document.

We won't fully realize the merging of the Web and the OS until the releaseof IE4.0, code named Nashville (for a sneak peek at IE4, see Jon Honeyball, "TheRoad to Cairo Goes Through Nashville," June 1996). IE4, which is due out inearly 1997 with a possible public beta version in late 1996, will turn thedesktop into a global browser that lets you open folders, view files, and editdocuments from within a Web browser.

On the whole, the current IE version is stable and suitable for everydayuse. IE3 packs a lot of wallop for the price--it's free to all noncommercialand commercial users. In a side-by-side feature comparison withNavigator 3.0, IE3 more than holds its own. If you can handle the idiosyncrasiesthat come with perching on the bleeding edge of technologies such as ActiveX andJava, I highly recommend IE3.

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