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Who needs a Navigator when you can be an Explorer?

Richard Barry says the new Web browser from Microsoft is likely to blast Netscape deep into cyberspace
If Netscape thought that it was going to get away with being the top Internet browser company for more than a single year, it's got another think coming.

Bill Gates and his Internet- obsessed team in Seattle are preparing to launch version 3.0 of the Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE3.0), which will without a doubt clobber Netscape's current Navigator 3.0 into the ground.

Strong words? Not so: at a workshop held in Seattle last week, Microsoft devoted two full days to evangelising its latest wares to journalists from around the globe. Internet Explorer (currently in version 2.0) has always struggled to be taken seriously in a market that has warmly embraced the underdogs at Netscape. But Version IE3.0, which is officially launched on 13 August, represents a determined effort from the Microsoft team to dominate yet another area of computing and will ensure that its own technologies are adopted as standards for the industry as a whole.

One of the technologies in Explorer 3.0, called ActiveX, which is similar to Netscape's Plug-In strategy, attempts to speed up the way people use multimedia over the Internet: Currently, if you are using the Netscape Navigator and you want to have a Web page play video or sound etc, you must have the appropriate Plug-In loaded. If you don't, you have to locate the Plug-In, download it, quit Navigator and then restart it to watch the multimedia element. But ActiveX does all the rag's work for you and you don't have to quit what you are doing.

For the end user, ActiveX means a simpler life is less than two weeks away and Microsoft is so confident that Explorer is "gonna be a hit" that Bill Gates predicts it will capture 40 per cent of the browser market very soon after its launch.

Netscape's Navigator holds 75 per cent of the market and until now it has been well deserved. But Explorer is a slicker, more robust, more capable browser than anything currently available.

To bolster his claims, Gates cited his new found buddies at AOL, Compuserve and AT&T who will use the new browser as part of their own online services.

These companies have snubbed Netscape and are integrating IE3.0 into their products to make navigating the Internet easier.

As if to rub salt into the Netscape wounds, Microsoft is also launching a conferencing product with IE3.0 called NetMeeting, which allows users to share documents, transfer files and have live conferences over the Internet either through text or by voice.

NetMeeting is a separate application that will be a boon to corporates who need to work on documents with colleagues in other countries - or in other rooms. It will also be an extremely cheap way to communicate with loved ones or friends who live in other countries as the call will only be charged at a local rate.

But Microsoft isn't content with just hammering Netscape - at the end of the two-day conference, the company that is pioneering "a new way of communication" revealed plans for its next browser - version 4.0, which will be an integral part of the next version of Windows.

The fourth version of the Internet Explorer will actually replace the Windows Explorer (file manager) so that navigating through your hard drive or the Internet is exactly the same process and doesn't involve launching separate programs. So enthused is Microsoft with its even newer new browser that you won't even have to launch programs like Word or Excel to edit documents. Simply type the document name in the browser and you can edit from inside IE4.0.

As if that weren't enough, John Ludwig, Microsoft's vice president of the Internet platform and tools division, said the company was working on version 5.0 of Explorer for release sometime in 1997. Ludwig would not say any more on the product, other than that there are 80 developers working on it - rumours that it pays the rent, makes dinner and walks the dog have yet to be confirmed.