Travelling light


The latest version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer has just been launched. I won't go to the party. I'm sure IE 5 is a nice piece of software, or at least nicer than Internet Explorer 4, which was the immediate cause of the Justice Department suing Microsoft and so perhaps breaking it up: it's good to know that a piece of software can crash the company that made it as surely as it can crash my little computer.

Internet Explorer 5 will be more reliable, once they've got the inevitable bugs out. It also adds some clever touches, such as a little radio control panel under the menu bar that allows you to play songs. There is even a little "Go" button next to the place where you type in addresses, for people who do not know that you are meant to hit the return key. And the program will be huge. I mean that literally.

The browser I'm mostly using at the moment, Opera, is a tenth of the size of Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator. You can fit it on one floppy disk and, while it won't do everything they will, it will do almost everything the big ones can; and what it does, it does faster. Opera is Norwegian, and thus a fine example of a curious emerging rule: lean and individualistic software from social democrat or socialist countries will always outperform the bloated bureaucratic products of mega-capitalism.

Economically, of course, Microsoft and Netscape believe in unfettered devil-take-the-hindmost competition between companies that are lean, agile and savage as weasels. But the software empires they are trying to build are as flabby as Comrade Brezhnev's. To deal with them is like negotiating with the Comecon: they will not sell you what you want, but only a huge package of things which may, if you're lucky, include one element you need or would like. If you're trying to buy oil, you find the price is that you must also take over the caviar marketing concession, build a tram factory and sell 15,000 badly painted folk-dancing dolls as well.

You think I'm exaggerating? Here is a list of the software that comes with Internet Explorer 5 - which itself is meant to be an integral part of the operating system, and so a compulsory part of any new computer you buy from now on. There is an e-mail program, a program for reading Usenet news, a link to Microsoft's free e-mail service, Hotmail, which in turn, when you leave it, automatically redirects you to Microsoft's web portal site in case you have not already been taken there automatically. There is a program to play music, provided it's encoded in Microsoft's proprietary format; and another to play videos over the net. There is Microsoft's version of the Java programming language and an interpreter for its Active X language. There are some fonts that Microsoft would like you to use. There is a small program for writing your own web pages; and when Explorer is installed it will also offer to become your default picture-viewing program.

Some of this stuff is worth having, and much of it is not. But the point is that the consumer has no choice at all. If you just want a web browser, you are out of luck: you get all the rest as well and it is impossible to remove once installed. Worst of all, it's free, which means it is paid for by everyone who buys any Microsoft product.

Netscape is not much less bloated, though I have some hopes of the next release, which is being written by volunteers all round the world, like the Linux operating system. And Netscape, too, is "free", which means that its makers must recoup their expenses by encouraging the sales of their other products and choking out competitors.

Opera, by contrast, costs $35, which is not a lot to pay for a program that does what I want and no more. Similarly, the e-mail program I am using at the moment comes from the state of Mordova, formerly part of the Soviet Union, and will in due course cost me another $20. But it's a quarter of the size of its Californian rival Eudora, and it doesn't try to take over my entire computer. It has a horrible editor and a silly name ("the Bat!"). Still, it works and is written with a proper respect for the customer. If you want software for the rugged individualist, you'll have to get it from Scandinavia or Eastern Europe.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong