Back in the days when a letter was a piece of paper folded into an envelope, we used to talk about getting "sacks of mail" or "a ton of mail." Clearly, the e-mail era demands new terminology. So we'll say that we got a digital dump of daunting dimensions in the e-mail basket in response to a recent column about our problems with the two leading Internet browsers.
We are grateful to all the readers who wrote us about Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape's Communicator. We generally try to answer each message you send us, but some weeks it's just impossible to keep up. So we'll answer you here.
Your messages fell roughly into three categories:
1) A surprisingly large number of people told us they had run into exactly the same problems we had with these browsers. We were delighted to hear it. It's not that we were happy that our readers are having problems, it's just that it always makes you feel better to know that you're not the only klutz on earth who can't make things work.
2) An even larger number reported other problems with the two browsers and could not find any online help.
3) And there was a raft of complaints from people who love Netscape Communicator, and got on our case for criticizing the program. Many of these readers said our problems with the latest version of Communicator were due to our own technical incompetence. (Or, as one 13-year-old Netscape fan wrote us, "You guys must be stupid!")
In that column, we mentioned the strange glitch we've encountered with Microsoft's browser program. All of a sudden, Internet Explorer can no longer find any of the dozens of Web addresses we had carefully saved on the program's list of "Favorites." Readers who had run into the same problem said the only way to solve it was to delete Explorer from the computer and then re-install it. And that requires entering all our existing "Favorites" all over again.
We're hoping to find a less drastic solution. A technical expert from Microsoft is now on the case, and we'll report to you when (if?) we get this fixed.
As for Netscape, we had several complaints about our column on the latest version of its flagship browser, Communicator ver. 4.5b1. Many Netscape fans chastised us for failing to note that this is a "beta" version of the program. These readers are right, and we were wrong not to mention that fact. A "beta" version is, by definition, an unfinished work and can be expected to have some flaws.
But our problems with the new Communicator didn't stem from any new features that have just been added to the latest "beta" version. We complained about the program because it failed on some of the basic services that Internet browser programs have been offering for years.
When we downloaded the newest version of the software, we expected that it would adapt the settings we had created for our previous version of Communicator. That's exactly what happened some months ago, when we downloaded Communicator's version 4.05. But the newest version didn't do that. It replaced all our "Bookmarks" the Web addresses that we go back to frequently with a long list of Bookmarks selected by Netscape.
Further, the browser ignored our chosen "portal" that is, the Web page that comes up when you first log on and automatically steered us to Netscape's own home page, NetCenter. This generates lots of "hits" for NetCenter, which will impress advertisers. But it doesn't impress the users.
Many readers found this as maddening as we did. But others said this kind of thing is normal, and that we should just expect to have to replace all the settings when we upgrade a piece of software. One technically skilled person told us precisely how to do it: Send an e-mail to Netscape; get an e-mail back recommending a shareware program to fix the problem; find the shareware program on the Internet; download it; decompress it; move it to the correct directory; run it.
This is easy? The hard-core techies may think so. But for most of us, that time-consuming seven-step procedure is not what we had in mind when we bought a personal computer to make our work go faster.
Our digital "mailbag" showed us that there are a lot of PC users who love Netscape and will put up with almost any difficulty to use its software. But there are even more people who primarily want Netscape, Microsoft, and other software houses to provide software that eliminates difficulties and is easy to use.
The company that finally comes up with an easy, reliable Internet browser that works properly and honors the preferences of each user will win the "browser war" in a walk. So far, neither of the major contenders seems to have reached this goal.
T.R. Reid is London bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at email@example.com and Brit Hume at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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