Bereft of any serious competition, Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) has been allowed to wallow in its own success and progress at a slower, more steady rate. But that hasn't prevented serious problems from emerging: Internet Explorer 5.0, while clearly the best-of-breed Web browser on any computing platform, has also been one of Microsoft's buggiest products. IE 5.0 has had over a dozen security fixes in its short life, leading Microsoft to work on incremental upgrades that fix problems and introduce only a limited set of new features. The first product that resulted from this plan was Internet Explorer 5.01, which was released in November 1999. IE 5.01 (build 5.00.2919.6307, or 1963.07 to be more precise) will be included in Windows 2000 when it ships in early 2000; you can read my review here. The second one, which will also be included in Microsoft's next Consumer Windows, code-named "Millennium," is IE 5.5.

Internet Explorer 5.5 began testing in late October alongside a new networking DUN technology code-named "Mars" which will also be included in Millennium. The current release, a so-called "Platform Preview," is designed for developers, not end users, making this release unsuitable for most people (A beta one release is expected in Q1 2000 that will be more appropriate for end-users). And like Internet Explorer 5.01, IE 5.5 is not a major new release of the browser suite. It is designed to fix bugs (of course), add new developer features, and it includes a new Print Preview feature that is the single high-profile addition to the package. In short, it's evolutionary, not revolutionary.


Bug fixes
While Microsoft has not published a list of the bugs fixed in IE 5.5, mostly because of the product's early development status, you can be sure that it will include all of the bug fixes in IE 5.01 and more. Hopefully by the time IE 5.5 ships in mid-2000, Microsoft will be able to claim that it has a reasonably secure product to offer customers.


Print Preview R Us
Internet Explorer 5.5 is the first version of Internet Explorer to support Print Preview (Image), which allows you to work with an Office-like preview of the page(s) that are to be printed. You can specify header and footer text for the documents, zoom in and out to preview the document as it will be printed, and perform any other features you're used to in, say, Microsoft Word. Essentially, Print Preview eliminates the guesswork when printing from the Web. Not a huge deal, but it's nice.


Web developer features
Aside from the bug fixes, which, let's face it, are the real reason for this release, Microsoft has snuck some new functionality in for Web and software developers as well. I'm not sure I understand the point of this, to be honest, since its hard enough to ensure that users are using a certain browser, let alone a certain point release as well. In any event, Microsoft has seen fit to add the following new Web developer features to IE 5.5:


  • Improved rendering and performance for IE behaviors.
  • New behaviors that can be bound to any HTML element.
  • ViewLink, a new technology that allows Web developers to create software components in Dynamic HTML instead of a true programming language such as Visual C++ or Visual Basic. This speeds development time dramatically and opens this feature up to a whole new range of users that aren't familiar with these environments.
  • Better support for the Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) standard, including the first-letter and first-line pseudo-elements

  • The ability to render text vertically.
  • Enhanced support for the upcoming HTML+TIME standard, now under consideration by the W3C. This feature adds timing and multimedia support to HTML pages.
  • A host of improvements to the Active Scripting engine, which provides VBScript and ECMAScript/JavaScript support to the browser.
  • A number of additions to the C language APIs that programmers can use to program and automate the browser. 

I'm not going to waste too much time on this stuff for obvious reasons. For more information about IE 5.5's developer features, please visit the Microsoft MSDN Web site.


Getting IE 5.5 Platform Preview
Windows 95, 98 and NT 4.0 users can download the IE 5.5 Platform Preview now from the Microsoft Web site. It utilizes an Active Setup program that is very similar to previous versions of IE 5. Windows Millennium Beta 2 users have IE 5.5 built right in; there's nothing else that needs to be done. Windows 2000 users will have to wait until Windows 2000 goes gold: The Platform Preview version of IE 5.5 will not install on this platform though a future version will. 


Conclusion
I don't recommend this build of IE 5.5 to any end users or developers. For users, IE 5.5 Platform Preview is not stable enough for daily use and it seems to prevent the use of Windows Update for many people (this isn't true for Millennium users, however). Windows NT 4.0 seems particularly problematic for this release, for some reason. And I've word from many people who are unable to uninstall this build, which is a huge problem. If you've got a single machine, especially, steer clear of this release: All of the current bug fixes are in IE 5.01 (which frankly has its own issues) and the Print Preview feature, while nice, isn't enough of a reason to upgrade. Heck, it's barely enough reason for this release to even exist.

For developers, the picture is a bit more complex. IE 5.5 is the version of Internet Explorer that was to have ushered in a new age of DHTML-based user interfaces ("Activity Centers"), so many of its low-level programming interfaces were designed with these lofty goals in mind. However, Microsoft has since reversed course and pushed back its new Windows user interface plans to 2001 at the earliest.  While developers frequently need to stay ahead of the game by nature, the IE 5.5 Platform Preview just doesn't make sense. The Web development improvements are relatively non-essential and the platform upgrades are pointless since there isn't a version of Windows coming soon that will take advantage of them. Most importantly, it will be late 2000 at the earliest before IE 5.5 has any measurable marketshare. If you're hell-bent on staying ahead of the Joneses, spend some time ready the documentation (link above) and wait for a later release.

For some reason, the computer industry has fostered a "gotta have it" attitude among users who seem eager to download and install the next big thing, regardless of the effect it may have on their system. I caution restraint with this release, however: If there is any market at all for this release, it is very small and chances are you're not part of it. I'm certainly not.

  Screenshots

The version number of the IE 5.5 Platform Preview is 5.50.3825.1300 (build 2513).



The main browser window is identical to that in IE 5.01.



Print Preview: Nice feature, not enough to make me want to upgrade.