Microsoft is promoting its new Internet browser with free access to popular Web sites that cybernauts would otherwise have to pay for, putting dominant Netscape on the defensive. For computer users, the battle of the browsers -- the software needed to access the Web -- will mean a livelier, fuller and cheaper ride. Bill Gates, chairman of Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, flew to San Francisco Monday night to play host to a lavish launch of Internet Explorer 3.0, the latest version of the software giant's browser. He said the launch was equally important to Microsoft's introduction a year ago of the Windows 95 operating system, the most heavily promoted product in computer history.
Microsoft paid several popular Web site operators to make their subscription-only sites available free to Explorer 3.0 users for five months. Explorer 3.0 users will get free access to The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, ESPNET SportsZone premium content, InvestorsEdge.com, which together represent about $80 in subscription fees for five months. The company also talked three other Web site publishers into creating sites that will work only with Internet Explorer 3.0. MTV Online started a political chat site named "Choose or Lose" that will initially be accessible only to Explorer 3.0 users, as will an "Explore Hollywood" site created by Hollywood Online and a game or two on the popular Riddler.com game site. "It is the content that really makes the difference," Gates said. "The product is priced to sell," he added. The browser itself is free, following the tradition in browser distribution established by Mountain View, Calif.-based Netscape. Internet Explorer 3.0 can be downloaded from Microsoft's Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/ie.
But while the incentives may work in winning some consumer market share, they are unlikely to dent Netscape's share of the more profitable business market, analysts said, or its revenues or earnings. "Those are all consumer-oriented deals," said Merrill Lynch & Co. Internet software analyst Bruce Smith. "Netscape gets 80 percent of its revenues from corporate sales" of its browsers and the Internet server software used to "publish" Web pages, he said. "Free software offers are not going to affect decisions made by the likes of Hewlett-Packard or by the U.S. Defense Department to standardize on Navigator and buy 180,000 copies," he said.
The real battle in the browser war has to be fought on how well they work and what features they boast, he said. On that score, Netscape Navigator has been ahead of Microsoft's Explorer in its previous versions. Several analysts and developers said Explorer 3.0 goes a good way in catching up to Navigator in features. It adds automatic e-mail, the discussion groups known as newsgroups and communications features and has a technology for easy programming called ActiveX. But Netscape plans to release Netscape Navigator 3.0, its latest version, next Monday, possibly raising the bar yet again. Netscape is also expected to counter Microsoft's Web deals with its own offerings. A preview of Navigator 3.0 can be found at Netscape's home page, http://home.netscape.com. There are differences between Microsoft and Netscape's latest browsers, said Riddler.com developer Joshua Shaub, whose site will include some material just for Explorer 3.0.
"But some things are better on one, some better on the other," Shaub said. ESPNET SportZone executive producer Jeff Day also said each browser has its advantages. "We still love Netscape," Day said. "But we believe in competition and these two companies warring with each other is a good thing because it makes both browsers better." Consumers are the beneficiaries of the browser battle, said Dataquest online analyst Dan Lavin. Lavin said that, while he was impressed with Explorer 3.0, "on its own, people might not make the effort to try it." But, with the Web site deals, the Explorer package "is very strong."
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