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For Joe Peterson, a development manager working on Internet Explorer 4.0, the project required some unusual sacrifices. Such as a wintry swim in Lake Bill, a basketball-court-sized body of water on the Microsoft campus.
"To encourage people, the program managers would do some pretty goofy stuff when we hit certain milestones," says the brown-haired, 32-year-old Peterson. "One guy dyed his hair blue; another shaved his head. When we got to one milestone in January, two of us swam Lake Bill. It was freezing - there was snow on the ground. But the team members loved it."
The chilly dip apparently was worth it. The just-released Internet Explorer 4.0, which shipped on the Web and mail-order CD just hours after Peterson recounted the task of completing it - takes Internet browsing, e-mail and Web page design to a new level. Its late beta versions have earned wide praise, with reviews underscoring the browser's ease of use, power and speed. "We gave it a strong thumbs up," says one reviewer. "It's clear that Microsoft has spent a great deal of time and effort making this browser a natural extension to regular computing use," says another. "Definitely worth downloading," adds a third.
Two Years of Intense Work
Internet Explorer 4.0's anticipated success as the premier Internet browser and e-mail client is the product of nearly two years of intense work by Microsoft developers. Even as Internet Explorer 3.0 shipped in July 1996, teams all across Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus already had been thinking about or writing code for the 4.0 version for months. That process gathered steam by late summer as ideas for the new browser took shape.
The experience gained from Internet Explorer 3.0's successful development and release didn't necessarily make the job easier. "This was actually a harder project," says Peterson, relaxing in his office before heading out to a ship-date champagne party. "With IE3 there were very clear goals, such as gaining parity with Netscape. With IE4 the challenge was figuring out how to really pull ahead."
Peterson's team, which worked on 4.0's much-anticipated "Active Channels" technology, had a key role in meeting that challenge. With Active Channels, 4.0 users can subscribe at no charge to dozens of content providers, ranging from the Wall Street Journal's interactive edition to the Happy Puppy game site to The Science Channel. Subscribers can tell 4.0 what content to look for and how to deliver it to the desktop, so even when they're off line, their PC is collecting useful and fun information. "It's a much more immersive experience," says Peterson.
Loaded With New Features
Internet Explorer 4.0 is loaded with such new features. "The Active Desktop" allows users to place Internet icons anywhere on the screen, just as they do now for program icons under Windows 95. That reduces toggling back and forth between Internet and desktop applications, and helps make the switch from the desktop to Internet environment as seamless as possible.
"Dynamic HTML," another new feature, gives interactivity new speed, allowing developers to create new, constantly changing pages that formerly required lengthy downloads or trips back to the server. "NetMeeting" simplifies online conferences. And new security features make work on the Internet safer.
IE 4 also includes Outlook Express, a full-service e-mail provider that will make perhaps the most popular Internet application even better.
One new addition to IE4 is an "AutoComplete" feature, which automatically fills in an address whose first few characters it recognizes. A popular feature with final beta users, it almost didn't make it into IE4. Says Sung Rhee, a design engineer who worked on Outlook Express: "It seems like every release there's one feature we didn't think we could get in, and in this case it was AutoComplete. But one of our team members really stepped up to the plate and went to work on it. Suddenly, wham! It's in." In fact, Outlook Express's AutoComplete feature was added just weeks before the release of 4.0, which Rhee admits is cutting it pretty close. "Usually we make stability and ease of use our primary concerns and don't like adding things that late," he says. "But we felt it was a great feature, and had good testing on it."
Usually those final weeks before a release are spent putting out dozens of bug-initiated fires as problems with a program crop up. "You really have to keep your focus then," says Rhee. "You never know what's going to happen when you come in to work."
Like many on the Internet Explorer 4.0 team, Rhee spent repeated 15-hour days solving problems and fixing bugs.
Many 4.0 engineers would keep the lights going on the campus all night. In Peterson's office, for instance, a well-worn couch was the final refuge for Peterson or one of his team members, as they snatched a few hours of sleep. To stay sharp, team members took a break when possible for a quick game of basketball or football, or even just a drive in the country.
The release of Internet Explorer 4.0 was an emotional event for those who worked on it as well. "It was an all-consuming project," says Chris Jones, the lanky, 28-year-old Group Program Manager who was the field marshal for the 4.0 team. "Now we're just trying to step back and get some sense of what people think about it."
Jones, who with a handful of others within Microsoft helped focus the company's attention on the Internet two years ago, views 4.0 as an affirmation of his belief that the Internet represents the future of personal computing.
"What IE4 says is that we think working on the Net is going to be the basic fabric of how people use their computers in the coming years," he says.
Doug Gantenbein is the Seattle correspondent
for The Economist.