PARTLY BECAUSE Microsoft and Netscape executives are openly antagonistic toward each other, it is tempting to characterize last month's rival introductions of Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 and Netscape Navigator 3.0 as a showdown, a David and Goliath struggle or even a death match for ultimate domination of cyberspace.
Hey, it's only software.
And while it is tempting to name winners and losers when two programs are competing on the same platform for the same users, in the case of Navigator and Explorer, everyone wins.
Most people do not even have to choose between the two programs. For all practical purposes, both programs are free, and both can co-exist happily on the same hard disk. Both are certain to be updated again before the end of the year, so any technical advantage one has over the other right now is likely to be ephemeral.
In fact, there are several compelling reasons not to choose between them, and to install both Explorer and Navigator.
Both browsers come with offers for free access to information services on the Internet, at least through the end of the year.
Microsoft's freebies include access to the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, MTV Online, ESPNet Sports Zone, Hollywood Online, Investors Edge and other services that usually require users to pay a subscription fee.
Netscape, not to be outdone, assembled a freebie package that includes access to the New York Times on the Web, Sony Music, Quote.com, Sports Line USA, the Gartner Group and American Express' Travel & Leisure Magazine.
Microsoft says it is offering the equivalent of $400 in free subscriptions and services; Netscape says its offers are worth $1,400.
For the first time in memory (mine, at least), computer software companies are slugging it out for the right to bestow free software and services on their customers. These offers are good only for a limited time, so get them while the electrons are hot.
The Microsoft Corp.'s trough can be found on the World Wide Web at http: //www.microsoft.com. The Netscape Communications Corporation is dishing up its software at http: //www.netscape.com.
Bring a lantern and a sandwich, as they say, because there might be a long wait for the software. Microsoft was unprepared for the surge of requests for Internet Explorer 3.0, and its servers (computers that distribute the software to users online) were busy for many days. Microsoft officials said a million copies of IE3 were delivered in the first week.
Netscape's servers held up better under the crush of 150,000 requests a day, but still some people were forced to try to download Navigator 3.0 from servers in Mexico, Texas and other exotic locales.
After using the final versions of both Navigator 3.0 and Internet Explorer 3.0 for the last week, my recommendation is to find room on the hard disk for both. Each has interesting and useful features not found on the other. There are exceptions, of course.
Many computer users simply lack the hard disk space (6 to 10 megabytes for each, depending on the browser and the options installed) to use both browsers. Some people prefer Internet Explorer because it is free, while Navigator officially costs $49. Netscape lets you download "evaluation copies" without charge, but the free copies expire within 90 days. Those who pay the $49 are eligible for technical support from Netscape; those who ride free get no assistance.
Choosing between the new browsers is easy for Apple Macintosh users, because Microsoft does not have a Mac version of IE3. Navigator wins by default, although Version 2 of Internet Navigator for the Macintosh is a very appealing product.
Neither, surprisingly, does Microsoft have a Windows 3.1 version of Internet Explorer 3.0. Microsoft asserts it will have Mac and Windows 3.1 versions before the end of the year.
There are some personal computer users who should avoid both Navigator 3.0 and Internet Explorer 3.0.
One should not use either browser if one does not have an Internet connection. Both Netscape and Microsoft sell retail versions of their browsers in software stores, and store managers say it is all too common for customers to buy a browser without realizing they need an Internet account to take advantage of it.
Neither should one use either browser if one is scrupulous about avoiding any software with a version number ending in zero.
In general, I ignore my own advice against using "zero" software when it comes to Internet browsers. The Internet software market is so competitive, and the pace of development is so accelerated, that software companies typically release their products to the public first and test them for errors later. Netscape actually offers a bounty to its customers for finding bugs in Navigator.
Businesses that rely on the Internet to reach customers, to conduct electronic commerce or to communicate internally cannot risk using untested software. Individuals who use the World Wide Web recreationally, and who pay nothing to use the browser software, are more tolerant of occasional glitches.
Even so, it is unsettling to hear of flaws in the browsers, however obscure they might be.
Researchers at Princeton University who earlier found flaws in previous versions of Netscape's software reported last week that they had found potentially serious flaws in Internet Explorer 3.0.
The most serious flaw, which the investigators conceded was subtle, would in theory allow unscrupulous Web site operators to set traps for Explorer 3.0 users and gain access to the data on their personal computers. No actual cases of such intrusions have been reported.
Microsoft has made a software patch available online that it says will fix the flaw, along with another snag that required some users to type in passwords repeatedly when visiting some sites that typically required the password only once. Such concerns and annoyances aside, both browsers are impressive and warrant further exploration.
Pub Date: 9/02/96