The most interesting feature in Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer 4.0 is its ability to put a Web-like HTML interface on the Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0 desktop, but the most useful features in a prerelease version PC Week Labs looked at last week were its much-improved mail client and small but helpful enhancements to the browser capabilities.
The much-ballyhooed (by Microsoft, anyway) Active Desktop is the biggest new feature in IE 4.0, which is slated to be available for public download at the end of this month. With this feature active, our Windows NT desktop became an HTML environment that could host Web pages and run Web components such as ActiveX controls and Java applets. The operating system's Explorer also adopted a browser interface, which let us create descriptive HTML home pages for shared directories.
The Active Desktop opens up some intriguing possibilities, but it didn't impress us as a feature that would necessarily increase productivity. And integrating the Web so closely with the PC could lead to security problems, such as those recently found in IE 3.0 (see related story).
In addition, we experienced a noticeable performance drop when running standard applications in the Active Desktop, although Java performance was unchanged from IE 3.0.
Microsoft has taken great pains to match IE 4.0's core feature set to that found in Netscape Communications Corp.'s forthcoming Communicator, providing browsing, messaging, editing and collaboration capabilities.
Outlook Express, IE's new mail and news client, supports IMAP 4 (Internet Messaging Access Protocol 4) and S/MIME (Secure Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) for secure messages. The client provides basic LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) support for public address directory searches, rich formatting via support for HTML embedded in messages and the ability to configure multiple mail accounts.
Version 4.0 of Internet Explorer also supports Dynamic HTML, which will let Webmasters create richer and more interactive Web pages, a basic WYSIWYG HTML authoring tool called FrontPad and a personal Web server.
When it comes to the basic browsing features, Microsoft has made some small but very useful changes. Web pages listed in Favorites, for example, can be periodically monitored for changes; if a page is changed, its icon receives a red mark (a feature introduced by Netscape in Navigator 3.0).
In addition, right-clicking on the Back and Forward buttons displays a drop-down menu showing a history of pages users have visited and provides a shortcut to those sites. Or users can start typing the address of a site they have visited before and IE 4.0 will automatically finish it.
Microsoft had planned to release a public beta of IE 4.0 March 17 but held off to address the concerns raised by a security flaw uncovered in Version 3.0.Any security fixes to IE 3.0 will be incorporated into the Version 4.0 code, officials said. The company plans to ship Internet Explorer 4.0 by midsummer.