UPDATE: Installing IE 5.01 SP1 can break Office 2000 help; here's the fix

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 many readers that this release breaks the Help system in Office 2000 and Office 2000 SR1a on many systems. I haven't been able to nail down which systems, exactly, are immune from this bug, but it appears that certain Windows 98 systems aren't affected. Of those that wrote in, and in my own experience, all Windows 2000 systems are affected by this problem. "Help requires Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 or greater," the warning reads when you try to run Office help after installing IE 5.01 SP1. "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 against downloading and install IE 5.01 SP1, unless you're comfortable with a little Registry editing, as I've discovered the fix for this bug. Unfortunately for Windows 2000 users, upgrading to IE 5.01 SP1 is currently the only way to get Outlook Express and other non-browser components of IE upgraded to IE 5.5 levels, which is curious. The more heavily tested IE 5.5, which will be released later this 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.

The strange saga of IE 5.x really has me 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 melded into the Windows user interface, I railed against Microsoft for allowing such buggy technology to get its tendrils into the core of the OS. 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 now 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 only be updated through IE 5.01 (which wasn't properly tested) 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.

As reports of incompatibilities between Internet Explorer (IE) 5.01 Service Pack 1 (SP1) and Office 2000 swept across the Web this weekend, the finger pointing began between the two teams at Microsoft responsible for the products. Of course, for the users affected by this, it's not important who caused the problem, what's important is that it just get fixed. But it's not coincidental, perhaps, that this problem should arise between two products that have been so poorly tested. Both IE and Office--especially its service releases, such as Office 2000 SR1--have poor histories of reliability. And for some reason, this bug doesn't appear on every install of IE 5.01 SP1, though it does appear almost universally on Windows 2000 Professional.

I was able to reproduce this bug on Windows 2000 systems with both the original version of Office 2000 and Office 2000 SR1a, and so I posted the first warning about IE 5.01 SP1 to the WinInfo Web site (http://www.wininformant.com) on Saturday. Numerous readers have written in with a Registry fix for the problem, which I describe below. But it seems that IE 5.01 SP1 writes the wrong build number information to the Registry. In Windows Me, the version number of IE is 5.50.4134.0100, so a value of 54134.0100 gets written to a specific location in the Registry. This information helps applications determine which version of IE you've got. When you install IE 5.01 SP1, however, invalid information is written to this part of the Registry. The version of IE in SP1 in 5.00.3103.1000, so the value 53103.1000 should be written in the build number location. But it's not: Instead, IE 5.01 SP1 writes 5.00.3103.1000, which is incorrect. And when Office help starts up, it thinks you're using an older version of IE.

So here's the fix, which you should only try if you're familiar with editing the Registry. Launch regedit.exe, navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Internet Explorer, and find the Build key (not the "Version" key). You'll see that its value is 5.00.3103.1000. Change this to the correct value of 53103.1000 and Office help will work. I've seen fixes on the Web that suggest different values, but this appears to be the correct one.

If you're not interested in hacking around in the Registry, which is completely understandable, Microsoft will probably reissue IE 5.01 SP1 sometime soon. And why not? In the crazy world of Microsoft bug fixes, this is the type of thing that we've come to grudgingly expect. IE 5.01 SP1a, anyone

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