Please be sure to read my review of the final version of Internet Explorer 5.0, which offers a number of features and refinements that were not present in this early beta release.

Internet Explorer 4.0, while offering a host of new features and capabilities was a mess. The base install was over 12 MB big (over 25 MB for a full install!), giving modem users a virtual headache. IE 5.0 is more componentized and, in a bid to stay ahead of the feds should things turn disastrous in court, can be broken down into small enough chunks so that users can install only the system file updates if needed. The problem with Internet Explorer, of course, is that Microsoft is using the product to update key system files; In IE 4.0 a Windows NT Server administrator had to install a Web browser (think about this) to get the latest version of Microsoft's Web server to work. This is clearly unacceptable, and IE 5.0 appears to fix the problem.

Of course, in Windows NT 5.0, the point is moot: The system files, browser files, and other assorted updates will simply ship with the system. Let's take a look at what you get.


Browsing the Web with Internet Explorer 5.0
From the user's standpoint, Internet Explorer 5.0 is just like Internet Explorer 4.0 with only a few minor differences. Microsoft is supporting numerous new Web technologies in IE 5.0, so some pages may not render properly due to coding mistakes or the simple fact that this is still an early beta. Overall, the performance of IE 5.0 is excellent and virtually indistinguishable from IE 4.0, with one exception: For some reason, some pages will not load properly (Picture) the first time you hit them and you get a "page not found" message from the browser. If you reload the page, it loads fine the second time. This probably happens 2-3 times a day, enough to be annoying, but again, it's seemingly related to its status as a beta product.

One notable enhancement in IE 5.0 is it's new HTML-based "Organize Favorites" dialog (Picture). This option finally makes it easy to, yes, organize your Favorites, including a simple and logical way to rename Favorites, move them to differnet folders, and the like. This is a huge improvement over IE 4.0. Also improved is the toolbar, which is now completely customizable (again, finally!). The problem here (Picture), as in IE 4.0, is that changes to the IE 5.0 Web browser's toolbar affect My Computer/Windows Explorer windows as well. For example, if you choose to display the IE 5.0 toolbar using small icons, your My Computer/Windows Explorer windows will use small icons too. This is a shame: If I could, I'd use small icons in My Computer and large icons in the Web browser, but there's no way to make that work right now.

In many ways, IE 5.0 is a bit of a let-down, if only because it doesn't seem to visually add much to the IE 4.0 experience. Whether this will change before the final release is unknown, but it's worth remembering that most of the changes to IE 5.0 come under the hood, and will be appreciated by developers and system administrators, not by users looking for something different. On that note, from the user's perspective, IE 4.0 was the best browser around, so there's little need to mess with a good thing. IE 5.0 is every bit as good as IE 4.0 and then some.


Other components
Because of the current state of the Windows NT 5.0 Beta 2 installer, which doesn't allow you to perform a custom install, I was given a default collection of IE 5.0-related tools. These include:

  • Microsoft Chat -- An IRC-like chat program, formally Comic Chat
  • Microsoft NetMeeting -- Video and text-based conferencing
  • Outlook Express -- Email and newsgroup access
  • Windows Media Player -- Plays media files such as AVI, RealAudio/Video, etc.
Of these tools, I use Outlook Express for newsgroup access on a daily basis (Picture) and I must admit that the 5.0 version has lost some functionality when compared to 4.0. This could very well be because of it's beta status, but there are a couple of nagging problems with Outlook Express 5.0 at this point, including the omission of an Outlook Bar view and a gross changing of the "View newsgroups" option that constantly messes me up. Allow me to explain.

The Outlook Bar issue is simple: It's not there. You can still access the Folder Bar and Folder List, but these are unacceptable: The Outlook Bar in Outlook Express 4.0 provided a quick, small-footprint way to access your news and mail accounts. It's disappearance in OE 5.0 is a sore spot. On a side note, the layout options have moved from the more-logical View menu to Tools-->Options (Picture). You have to love change for change's sake. The new way is not better, and it is not logical. It is, however, different, and that's aggravating.

Anyway, the change from a dialog-based "View groups" (IE 4.0) to the full window view in IE 5.0 is even more aggravating. This is tied to the way I view newsgroups: I view only the unread messages and I automatically mark all messags as read when I leave a group. In IE 4.0, I could be in a group reading messages, check to see if there are any new groups (using the convenient dialog), and then go right back to reading messages. In IE 5.0, attempting to access the list of available groups for the current news server switches the main view from the current group to the list of messages, which, of course, marks all the messages in that group as read. Even if I haven't read them yet.

Arrgghhh....

And you know, I haven't gotten used to it yet. I still manage to do this over and over again. Anyway, I've sent in a complaint about this, so hopefully we'll see some progress before the final release.

As for the other components, none have changed much since IE 4.0, except of course Windows Media Player (Picture), which is a wonderful improvement over the old version. Microsoft is offering this player for free from its Web site to Windows 9x and NT 4.0 users as well: I highly recommend it. If you're a follower of WinInfo, you know that this is the player that got Microsoft into trouble with RealNetworks.


System integration
Windows NT 5.0 makes the Web browser integration in Windows 98 look like a sad joke: Much of the system is now rendered in IE 5.0-based HTML pages, including the Add/Remove Programs Control Panel applet and the new Search program. Windows NT 5.0 also includes, of course, the components from Windows 98 that were already HTML-based, such as the Active Desktop, Explorer windows, Windows Update, and the Help system. By changing more and more of the system over to HTML, a more consistent interface is presented to the user.

The following HTML system components are now available in Windows NT 5.0 Beta 2:

  • Add/Remove Programs -- I have to question this application's need to be written in HTML (Picture), but it is nicely done. The Add/Remove Programs applet will be covered in a future technology showcase about the new Windows Installer.
  • Search -- The sickly Find feature from Windows 95 was upgraded in Windows 98 and blown away with Windows NT 5.0: It's now know as "Search" (Picture) and is completely HTML-based. In fact, it resembles the "Search" feature from IE 4.0/5.0 and, it seems, for good reason: The idea here is to present the user with a consistent user interface for all of their search needs. Of course, in typical Microsoft fashion, they blew it elsewhere: The interface for "Search for Printers" is, naturally, not HTML-based. The Windows NT 5.0 Search functionality is amazing, and I will be covering this in a future technology showcase as well.
Again, there's actually more than this: Windows Update, the Help system, and other HTML features from IE 4.0/Windows 98 are also avaialble. The seemless integration of HTML into the system is somewhat disarming: In NT 5.0, clicking an HTML form button will often launch a "real" Windows application and vice versa. At the technical workshop in August, Microsoft VP Jim Allchin talked about the eventually merging of HTML and the Win32 API used to create Windows NT applications. You can see this change happening before your eyes in NT 5.0 and it's wild. In fact, it almost seems natural.


From a developer's perspective
I'm going to give a quick run-down of the new features for Web developers in IE 5.0, but a couple of comments are needed here. I am a Web developer by trade, and I use Microsoft tools on both the client and the server-side. This includes, but is not limited to, such technologies as Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0, Windows NT Server, Active Server Pages (ASP), VBScript, ActiveX Data Objects (ADO) for Web/database functionality, SQL Server 6.5/7.0, Visual InterDev, Visual Basic, and more. It should be obvious from this extensive list that I am firmly, and clearly, in the Microsoft camp when it comes to Web development.

Then why do the new developer features in IE 5.0 leave me so cold?

Despite my belief that Microsoft's extensions to HTML, scripting, XML, and the like are overwhelmingly superior to anything else that's out there, I firmly believe in the ideals of Web standards. For example, during the development of IE 4.0, Microsoft presented most of its pending changes to these technologies to the W3C, the body responsible for creating and maintaining Web standards, and offered them up for inclusion in future standards. This way, it seemed, the W3C would eventually include most of these technologies in future specifications and, as a Web developer, I could pretty much rely on the fact that the rest of the market (i.e. Netscape) would follow along and include support for these technologies in their own browsers.

Needless to say, this hasn't happened. So, while I appreciate--and am amazed by--some of the new Web technologies Microsoft has created, I'm not going to be able to use most of them because I must, as a Web developer, support the whole market, not just the minority using Internet Explorer. Now, as a caveat, I should say that much of the Web technology Microsoft has created is server-based, and I don't have a problem using that because I'm using IIS on the server-side, but the client-side stuff, specifically the IE 4.0 and IE 5.0-specific technology, well, it will just go unused for the most part.

It's harder, for example, to support IE 5.0 technologies on a Web page while maintaining backwards compatibility with older browsers than it is to simply create a page that will work with any browser. And even though I might be able to agree that some of these technologies would be beneficial to the user, I can't implement them until I'm sure that enough people are using IE 4.0/5.0. And right now, that simply isn't the case. OK, there are exceptions: If you're working on an intranet site and you're sure that all of your users are going to browsing with IE 5.0, go nuts. Otherwise, I can't recommend using almost any of these technologies, simply because the time and expense of learning them is far too great. It's just not worth it.

Now that I've completely turned you off to these technologies, let's take a look at them. The advances Microsoft has made really are pretty impressive, as I've said. Perhaps by the time NT 5.0 ships, my cross-browser compatibility issues will be moot, or Microsoft may create tools (such as FrontPage 2000) that handle the browser issues automatically.

  • CSS Positioning -- Microsoft has changed the way IE 5.0 handles CSS positioning--the ability to position images, text, and other elements at the pixel level on a Web page--because of "limitations" in the way IE 4.0 handled this. In other words, the CSS spec wasn't good enough. Positions can also be changed, dynamically, at any time, using Microsoft's proprietary flavor of Dynamic HTML.
  • Style Sheet changes -- In addition to CSS positioning, Microsoft has changed other aspects of the way it handles CSS so that it no longer conforms to the current CSS spec. This was also done to address limitations in the CSS 1.0 spec.
  • Fixed Layout Tables -- In yet another proprietary extension to Web standards, Microsoft has given IE 5.0 the ability to more quickly load HTML tables that are used to determine layout. Fixed Layout Tables were implemented with a proprietary extention to CSS, allowing these tables to load much faster in IE 5.0.
  • Dynamic Properties -- A new feature of DHTML, Dynamic Properties allow the layout of your page to respond to browser resize events and other similar changes. Wonderful, and powerful, if the user has IE 5.0.
  • State handling -- Older browsers can remember "state" with Cookies, those much-loathed text files that are limited to 4K for security reasons. Well, you can now bypass that limit with IE 5.0's ability to remember the "state" of the browser--that is, the condition the user left it in (where some menus might have been expanded, etc.) when he returns to the page later. This prevents a previously-visited page from simply reappearing in it's default view.
  • DHMTL Behaviors -- By combining XML data with Microsoft's proprietary flavor of DHTML, developers can now apply "behaviors" (properties, methods, and events) to any HTML or XML element as if it were an object in a language such as Visual Basic or Java. Behaviors are typically described in a separte file.
  • Scriptlets -- Introduced suddenly just days before IE 4.0 hit the streets, scriptlets are script-based (rather than binary) "components" that can be called from an IE-enabled Web page. Scriptlets are essentially a separate file containing script and HTML that are designed to be reusable across multiple pages. Think of them as advanced "include" files and you'll get the idea. IE 5.0 scriptlets now support DHTML and XML, and Microsoft is positioning them as--surprise, surprise--a proprietary replacement for Java applets.
And, I'm sure, there's more. Yup, the proprietary technologies in IE 5.0 make for quite a list. Those listed above, I believe, are the majors ones but I'm sure there's more. In any case, you can be sure that they're not part of any industry-wide specification and that they're proprietary to IE 5.0. Use them at your own risk.


Conclusion
IE 5.0 is an incremental, evolutionary rather than revolutionary, upgrade to IE 4.0. It appears to address most of the problems of IE 4.0 while adding new features designed to benefit users of Windows. As a Web development tool, IE 5.0 is, as I've said, questionable, but its features will certainly benefit anyone using the browser in an integrated environment such as NT 5.0. For example, many of the Web development technologies I've complained about will directly benefit NT 5.0 users by allowing HTML pages to present a Win32-like interface to the user, blurring the line between "true" application windows and HTML windows. The way Windows NT 5.0 applications move back and forth between HTML-based and Win32-based windows is amazing and quite natural. This would never have been possible if Microsoft stuck to the HTML specifications.

In many ways, Microsoft's "abuse" of Web technologies was done to specifically enhance the NT 5.0 user experience, and it's pretty hard to complain about that. But until IE 5.0 commands the lion's share of the Web browser market--and it very well may someday--I'll be sticking to more universal standards for commercial Web development. From the user's perspective, however, you can't go wrong with IE 5.0. It's everything IE 4.0 is with more of the good stuff and less of the bad.