Microsoft Internet Explorer nudges along a bit (1999)

As Microsoft readies to release Internet Explorer 5 this month, you will of course have no reason to ask why it’s not called IE ’99 or IE 2000. Ask me and I’d have gone for IE ‘OO to really get radical, but then IE5 is to IE4 what Windows 98 was to Windows 95 – a much better version of the original. More radical is that the days of software upgrades from 3.1 to 3.11, seem to be over. The long time heat-seekers, who collect software to two decimal places, seem to be out of a hobby.

Microsoft’s Internet browser draws on the ‘intelligence’ first seen in MS Office. Just as Word will correct simple spelling errors on the fly, the new browser corrects mistyped versions of ‘www’ or ‘http://’ and offers a drop-down list of options based on places you’ve visited before. Just as it automatically completes a Web page address when you hit the first few characters, now they’ve used the idea to help complete online registration forms. You simply flag your details in the address book so that when you meet a web form, you can drop in your name and address details. It’s both good and scary enough to have people creating bogus identities to get about safely.

More hints of intelligence abound in the lists of favourite (bookmarked) sites and page histories. Here URL’s are greyed out to show at a glance if they’re available offline. In fact there are numerous concessions to the fact that people are offline most of the time. For example, the History pane now offers better ways of finding past pages as instead of having to figure out when you visited a site, you can view everything by date, by most visited or the order you visited them. The page history can also be searched by its URL, or by a string of words in the page – it makes no difference. Furthermore, the listing has the good sense to strip off the www and first parts of of the URL so that like domains are listed together.

If ever you have tried to keep a web page as a standalone file you have almost certainly lost the graphics files somewhere in the ether. Now when you save a web page, IE5 recreates the file with a folder containing the graphics – furthermore, a click on ‘edit’ opens it in a web page editor and lets you do what you will with it. Likewise, if you want to send a web page to a colleague, a click on ‘tools’ drops the page into an email message pane intact. This can be seriously more useful that sending them a page link and it maybe a key to better advertising.

You can also right-click on any URL to make it available offline. This brings up a wizard that offers to update the page at a set time or when you click on a ‘synchronise’ button. Though entirely similar, this approach feels better than IE4’s ‘subscribing’ to pages and besides a single press on ‘synchronise’ will not only update your pages but it will go fetch e-mail at the same time.

Also supplied with the browser are the raft of accessories such as a page editor, newsreader, NetMeeting Internet phone and the Outlook Express mail program. This mail program now has several features found in MS Outlook and it remains as quick to use as before. Rules, which let you redirect, delete or file away messages are now a touch easier since you can right-click on someone’s message and choose what you want to happen. You can flag and colour messages to alert as well as consign junk mail to a folder where it can be regularly wiped away. Outlook Express finds junk mail by looking for text such as ‘cash’, ‘offer’ and ‘amazing’ and it offers levels of control on how severe you want it to be. Similarly, you can ‘block’ messages from someone and forever consign them to the bin. Life can be that tough.

Express at last offers a way to send messages to groups of people. It also has an intriguing feature to allow different people to manage their mail independently on the one machine. For instance, one person in the office can use the one program to get their mail and deal with it. When another comes along they simply switch users and see their own set of folders. The speed and lightness of Express, plus the ability to import all your old messages from Outlook proper will win a few converts for sure.

System managers, Internet providers or those responsible for distributing IE5 gain a kit of administration tools for creating custom installations. In common with previous kits it allows control over how IE looks and how it connects. Anyone at home in cyberspace can really go places in changing buttons, logos, favourites, and home pages – they can even schedule the browser to pop into a site to update itself in case Microsoft introduces another. But I wonder will that be an IE6 or an IE5.1?

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