My browser experience

Milly Jenkins joins the troops at the front line in the battle between Microsoft and Netscape
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The Independent Online
Microsoft v Netscape - the battle of the browsers, the clash of the titans, the final showdown. Or, as this month's Wired says about the new influx of browser upgrades: "Make it stop!" Hot on the heels of Netscape's new Communicator, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 will be released this summer. While Netscape verges on the reticent when it comes to pushing its products, Microsoft likes to go the whole hog in showing off its new wares. To demonstrate IE4.0, it flew 250 journalists from 24 countries to Seattle, its home town, to explain why its browser is best.

Its powers of persuasion are strong, but the tactics simple - sit everyone in a darkened room for two long days and talk "best browser" until they leave, chanting "Microsoft good, Netscape bad".

Microsoft's slogan is "The Web the way you want it". This is no mere company work mission, this is a life statement. A panel of young, clean- cut men, the Internet Explorer program managers, take the journalists through the new browser. The journalists sit mesmerised in front of individual terminals, networked together to see IE4 in action. Groups of Microserfs, as novelist Douglas Coupland called them, identical in uniform white polo shirts, circulate. They let out occasional whoops of excitement, and keep a close eye on any journalists who look as if they are about to do a runner.

The most striking thing about the speakers is their eloquence. If there were a British equivalent of Microsoft, its employees would probably be mumbling shyly into the microphones. These people can talk. Even so, their speech is jargon rich. And "rich" is the word most used to describe IE4 - every feature is "rich", "richer" and "richest". "Experience" is the other key word - they want users "feeling good about their browser experience" and having a "great e-mail experience". Truly American though it all is, some of the jargon has a quaintly British, Billy Bunter tone - "it's super exciting to get people on to the Web!"

Although enthusiastic, the presentations are more low key than they used to be. The old style was one of delighted discovery at their own products, such as: "Geoff! That is so cool, I just can't believe it." But these days they are less exclamatory, maybe because journalists are less easily impressed. After all, the only upgrades that junket journalists really care about are the kind you get on planes. On registering for the workshop, the question on everybody's lips is not: "I wonder what gems they've come up with in the 4.0?" but, "Do you think they're doing bags or mouse mats?" It turns out to be Internet Explorer wine and glasses, engraved with "Memphis" (the code name for Windows 97).

The polite rubbishing of the company's competitor provides some light entertainment. For every new feature explained, comparisons are made with Netscape's Communicator: "They've done this quite nicely, but we were disappointed to find they hadn't gone further. It might have been a nice feature for helping people to communicate with folks."

Microsoft employees are said to be workaholics, driven to meet shipping deadlines. But they seem happy enough to work hard. "Here's a dynamic HTML page I put together in 20 hours," says one. But there is a feeling that this is a parallel universe. The odd reference to the outside, Internet- ignorant world occasionally sneaks in, with jokes about clueless wives, parents and neighbours - "My mom won't understand this one. She probably doesn't even know what a network is!"

But, they say, the folks are never far from their thoughts. They show a witty, self-deprecating video made for Microsoft developers, intended as a reminder that most people neither know nor care about the technical details of what they do. Real people are stopped in the street and asked questions, like: "What is the most important feature of a firewall for you?" They also show videos of their usability tests, to demonstrate how quickly people grasp the basics of IE4. The less Web-savvy guinea pigs are called "lower end users", as if on the bottom rung of an evolutionary Internet ladder.

Bill Gates does not appear in person, but his aura is everywhere. The panel are better at talking than answering questions, which they do with defensive caution. Asked about Microsoft's long-term Internet strategy (summarised as "embrace and extend"), they are reluctant to make predictions that Bill may not have sanctioned. Will there still be browsers in five years? "Five years is a long time in Internet years." Will the Internet Explorer always be free? "Well, Bill has said that, so I feel safe in saying that".