New Offerings From Netscape and Microsoft

Government agencies looking to standardize on a common browser have two primary platforms from which to choose: Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer or Netscape Communications Corp.'s Communicator. Both packages recently were upgraded and are packed with new features. We studied the latest versions to find which one is best, and our results may surprise you. The battle between the browsers is heating up again. Netscape unveiled a new version of its Communicator in August, while Microsoft announced Internet Explorer 4.0 Sept. 30. Both have added so many features that they've virtually eliminated other competitors. But Microsoft and Netscape have taken different approaches, which leaves state and local buyers with some pointed decisions to make.

Microsoft has taken an aggressive position, pushing new technologies such as ActiveX and extensions to Dynamic HTML (DHTML), both of which the firm hopes will become standards. Microsoft also has tightly integrated its browser with its Windows 95 and Windows NT operating systems. The lure of Internet Explorer is that it is free. And there's no question IE4 represents an incredible value for those committed to Windows.

Netscape, by contrast, comes at a price: $35 for the standard version and $41 for the professional version. Depending on your agency's needs, however, Communicator may well be worth this small investment. Netscape offers relatively strict adherence to standards and broad platform support, which are important issues for agencies with large numbers of users and heterogeneous networks. Netscape users-including Web page designers-don't have to worry about compatibility. (Unless, of course, Web sites adopt the Microsoft-backed technologies not supported by Netscape.) If your office has older equipment or diverse platforms, such as Macintosh or Unix systems, Netscape is the natural choice and may even save you money. Communicator's broad platform support means you won't have to convert existing workstations to Windows 95 or NT. Nor will you have to upgrade 486s so they can run Windows 95 and IE4 with optimal performance.IE4's free distribution and tight operating-system integration make it attractive for Windows 95 or NT users. However, agencies and other large organizations should take a closer look to determine which product offers the most value in a mixed-platform environment. That examination should encompass not only the browser and accessories but also the administration kits.

After all, rolling out Internet services to dozens or hundreds of users can be a costly effort. What's more, given that Web browsers represent a potential conduit for bringing viruses and misbehaving applets into the organization, security controls are important.

The test plan for our comparison of Internet Explorer 4.0 and Communicator 4.02 was designed with state and local agency needs in mind. Accordingly, we've placed a premium on broad platform support and adherence to standards. Therefore, it's no surprise that Net-scape Communicator emerges as our winner, scoring barely ahead of Microsoft with a 6.90 vs. a 6.80 for IE4 on our scale from 1 to 10. However, this is an advantage that Netscape can't count on holding for long because Microsoft has promised broader platform support soon. Apart from limited platform support, IE4 is impressive. Its browser is easier to use and more fun for the end user than the Netscape product. Administrators also will find the Internet Explorer Administration Kit (IEAK) to be very capable and easier to use than Netscape's Mission Control. IE4 is blazing new trails, and its price is unbeatable, especially if your shop is all-Windows.

-- Patrick Marshall is a senior technical analyst with the FCW Test Center. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer 4.0, available free to government customers. Score: 6.80

Netscape Communications Corp.'s Communicator Professional 4.02, available on various state contracts from Netscape or commercially through resellers. Score: 6.90

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Netscape Communicator

Communicator may not startle users with glitzy new features to the extent IE4 does, but it is a pillar of reliability in this fast-changing Web world. What's more, Communicator 4.02 - which includes a new version of the Navigator browser, an e-mail client, a newsgroup client, a Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) publisher and a conferencing utility - provides many new ease-of-use features and functionality.

You'll know right away upon boot-up that you're in a friendlier Navigator. New 3-D animated icons make the toolbars more attractive and more intuitive to use. We especially liked the new navigation arrows: Click and hold on one, and a list of backward or forward destinations pops up. You then can go directly to the page you want.

The new Bookmarks utility, with drag-and-drop editing of your favorite sites, is also helpful, as is the new ability to simply drag an address in the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) bar to the desktop or to the Personal Toolbar to create a quick-link button.

Like IE4, the new Navigator supports DHTML, which means you can use pop-up menus and tables that can be manipulated.

Communicator also has done a good job of implementing offline browsing via Netcaster. Communicator's implementation of channels looks similar to that of IE4, with an attractively designed panel that offers easy access to Web sites. By default, the panel is attached to the right side of the screen, and a small pad that looks like a TV remote control is available for expanding or collapsing the window.

Both IE4 and Netcaster will monitor subscribed Web sites for changes and put a "gleam" in the channel icon when there is new material, although Netcaster does not match IE4's trick of automatically sending e-mail notification.

Netcaster has a few other limitations. First, it is actually a separate Java application, and it takes quite some time to load. We also found it irritating that program tabs start multiplying in the Windows task bar as you explore channels.

Also, Netcaster is restricted to Web-crawling types of subscriptions. That is, the user can schedule downloads of page updates, but there is no equivalent to IE4's Channel Definition Format (CDF) files that allow for a server-side push to users.

Communicator's security features are strong, though the browser does not offer an equivalent to IE4's unique implementation of Internet zone security. Communicator does, however, support digital signatures of applets, as well as e-mail encryption. And the administrator has strong controls over what users can download.

Netscape's Messenger e-mail client has a definite edge over IE4's Outlook Express. In addition to support for HTML, Post Office Protocol 3, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol and IMAP4, Messenger supports a number of features you won't find in Outlook Express. Messenger, for example, provides a spell-checker, while Outlook Express relies upon the spell-checker provided with Microsoft Office. Messenger also allows you to require a return receipt for messages and clearly marks messages as having been responded to or forwarded.

Messenger also has an edge over Outlook Express when it comes to responding to messages. Both programs are clever enough to respond to a message in the format that it was received (text, HTML, etc.), but Messenger will associate the sender's domain with its format type and automatically format any message sent to that domain accordingly.

And, unlike IE4, Communicator allows the administrator to customize the LDAP directory so that address books will display just the information end users need.

One notable drawback to Communicator's e-mail is that you cannot specify a third-party mail program to use with Navigator instead of Messenger.

While not quite as easy to use, Communicator's administration kit - dubbed Mission Control - is at least as powerful as Microsoft's IEAK. Mission Control provides controls over every browser client preference, and the administrator can lock the browser so users cannot change the settings. Mission Control can be used to manage the entire suite of Communicator applications, while IEAK can only configure the browser, Outlook Express and NetMeeting.

Mission Control, like IEAK, allows the administrator to store user configuration files centrally on a server so they can be changed whenever the administrator likes. Also, Mission Control's configuration files can be stored in a directory server along with other user data, making the administrator's job of managing all enterprise user data simpler. IEAK won't offer this capability until NT 5.0 and Active Directory are delivered.

But what most distinguishes Communicator is its broad platform support with consistent behavior across platforms. While Microsoft promises support for Windows 3.x, Macintosh and Unix clients, Communicator is already delivering it. And Netscape has a lot of experience in supporting those platforms for the Navigator browser. If you know how to use the product on one platform, you'll know how to use it on others.

Until Microsoft actually provides client versions for Windows 3.x, Macintosh and Unix, enterprises that have those platforms will have an easy decision to support Netscape. After that, the choice will be much tougher, especially if the Microsoft products continue to be given away while Netscape charges $35 to $41 for the browser and $1,187 for the administration kit.

Internet Explorer 4.0

Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch? With Internet Explorer 4.0 and the companion IEAK, Microsoft has just given Windows users a free ticket to a full-course meal.

For starters, the Internet Explorer 4.0 browser is the slickest Web cruiser we've seen. The browser's navigation tools are unmatched - from its support for the IntelliMouse, which makes scrolling Web sites easier than ever, to its Explorer window, which you can pop open on the left side of the display. You can use the Explorer window for searching the Web, navigating your list of bookmarked Web sites, exploring the history folder or displaying subscribed sites. The neat thing about the Explorer window is that when you select an item, the pane doesn't disappear, so you can cruise through search results without having to flip back and forth.

We also liked IE4's well-designed toolbars. There's a standard toolbar, which includes navigation and utility icons, an address toolbar for entering and viewing URLs, and a QuickLinks bar with one-click access to most-frequented sites. You can drag an address from the URL bar and drop it on the QuickLinks bar.

Like Communicator, IE4 supports DHTML, which means Web pages can be designed to respond in a timely fashion to user input. And thanks to DHTML and IE4's data-binding abilities, you can use the same technique with data-dependent material - a trick beyond the reach of Communicator. For example, you might click on an item in a table and have a new table of related data pop up. Unless you're developing an intranet, how much you get out of DHTML depends on how widely these features are implemented by Web sites.

Speed is another distinguishing characteristic of IE4. The browser's method of implementing DHTML, coupled with its support for HTTP 1.1 and its new Java just-in-time compiler, make IE4 faster at displaying pages and running applets.

Another feature that differentiates IE4 from the competition is its tight integration with the Windows operating system. This takes place primarily in two locations: the Windows desktop and Windows Explorer. With the new Active Desktop, you can drop applets from the Web right onto your Windows desktop, making them accessible without even loading your browser. You might, for example, display a stock ticker or a weather map. If you want full access to the site, all you have to do is click on the applet.

The integration between IE4 and Windows Explorer is also slick: You can access Web pages using Windows Explorer just as you access folders on your hard drive, and you can even display IE4's toolbars in Windows Explorer to make navigation easier.

Like Communicator, IE4 introduces offline browsing capabilities. But IE4 takes the idea further. If a Web site creates a CDF file, which is downloaded by subscribers, selected updates from the site can be pushed to the end user on a schedule determined by the Webmaster. Users can receive notification that the page has been updated via a blinking icon or an e-mail message.

The main weakness of the new version of the IEAK is that it supports few platforms. On the plus side, however, IEAK is easier to use than Netscape's Mission Control, and it offers comparable control over browser configuration and distribution. And IEAK is free, compared with the $1,187 price of Mission Control.

IEAK's nifty wizard makes putting together custom installation packages almost a no-brainer. We especially liked the Automatic Version Synchronization feature, which automatically goes out over the Internet to check Microsoft's download site to make sure you've got the most current versions of all the components. If any components are missing or are out of date, the Wizard will offer to download the current version.

The program offers extensive controls over the browser configuration and allows the administrator to decide whether to allow users to change those settings. The administrator can specify default start, search and support pages as well as Active Desktop items to install mail servers and proxy settings for addresses and ports.

Security features also are strong. In addition to locking browser settings, the administrator can pre-install certificates on users' computers and block downloads of other certificates, thus protecting against unauthorized downloads of applets. What's more, IE4 allows you to control Internet security zones. Using these zones, you can specify what sites users can access and under what conditions. A typical use is to prevent users from downloading Java or ActiveX applets from sites that don't appear on a list of "trusted" sites.

IEAK also provides tools for administrators to keep users updated. You can use IE4's channels to schedule application updates, although this feature is not quite as flexible as Netscape's Castanet tool.

And IEAK, like Mission Control, allows administrators to change user's IE4 configurations on the fly. When creating the installation package, the administrator simply points browsers toward configuration files stored on the server. The clients will then check the server for configuration changes each time it is booted.

While IEAK is not a cross-platform application like Mission Control, it does offer an advantage not found in the Netscape product: You can use IEAK 4.0 to control not only IE4 installations but also IE3 browsers. With Mission Control, you have to use separate administration kits for each version of the browser software.

The bottom line: IE4 is a slick and innovative Web browser accompanied by a somewhat underpowered e-mail client, strong conferencing tools and a competent midlevel HTML publishing tool. The main drawback of IE4 is its limited platform support. Until Microsoft releases its IE 4.0 clients for Windows 3.x, Macintosh and Unix, most agencies will have a hard time standardizing on this platform.


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