IE 5 Changes How Mac Users See the Web

At long last, the Mac version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5.0 has been released. And while this update has the usual collection of interface improvements we've come to expect in these latter days of the Browser Wars, IE 5.0 is a more momentous update than any we've seen in some time.

At the heart of IE 5.0's revolution is its page-drawing engine, which Microsoft calls Tasman. The arrival of Tasman means that IE 5.0 displays the HTML code created by Web site designers quite differently than previous versions of the application. Pages that looked funny (or wouldn't load at all) on IE 4.5 may now look good, and pages that worked fine before may now appear broken.

Most importantly, though, Microsoft has altered the way IE displays text. Now by default the browser draws fonts at a resolution of 96 dpi, the Windows standard. In practical terms, what this means is that pretty much all the text you see on the Web with IE 5 will be a lot bigger than the text Mac users are used to. But it does mean that a default installation of IE 5 for the Mac will display Web pages pretty much the same way that Windows users see them.

The same item from Macworld.com in Internet Explorer 4.5 (left) and Internet Explorer 5 (right). Note the much larger default text size in the new browser.

(If you don't like this new approach to fonts, it's easy to change. From IE 5's Preferences menu, click on the Language/Fonts tab. Then choose 72 dpi from the Resolution pop-up menu. Your IE 5 will go back to the old type size.)

It's smart for Microsoft to try and make IE 5 behave more like its Windows counterpart. Since each Web browser has its own way of interpreting HTML, each one draws pages differently. The people who design Web pages often are forced to choose one particular browser to target, and then sometimes will try to make their pages work in other browsers, even if the results are less than optimal.

Guess which browser most designers choose, if they're forced to pick one? The most popular browser for the most popular operating system -- and that means Internet Explorer for Windows.

There's a lot of good in Microsoft's decision to make the text in IE 5 bigger. So many pages are designed for Windows-based Web browsers that it's pretty easy to find a page full of unreadable text or inexplicable widgets that simply don't work right on the Mac. However, because IE 5's page-drawing engine is brand new, that means that it's probably got a lot of... well, to be generous, let's call them quirks.

One of my favorite sites on the Web is ESPN.com, the Web arm of the popular sports-oriented cable TV channel. ESPN's Web site is pretty high-text as Web sites go, with a JavaScript-enabled Top Stories box that features different tabs you can click on to read top stories in different sports.

On Internet Explorer 4.5, this page displays correctly more often than not. (Although from time to time it'll be completely unreadable -- go figure.) On Internet Explorer 5 for Windows, the view is much the same, although it's a bit prettier -- a border runs around the entire box, for example, an interface touch that's not there on the Mac.

But on the new Mac IE 5, the main story's text runs too long, to the point where it's overlapping other links on the page. In this example, IE 5's text is actually bigger than the corresponding text in either IE 4.5 for Mac or IE 5 for Windows. Apparently this is because ESPN is using Cascading Style Sheets, a system that can give Web page designers more control over the size of type on a Web page -- and IE 5.0 simply doesn't handle it right.

ESPN.com's Top Stories box in IE 5 for Windows (Top Left), IE 5 for Mac (Left), and IE 4.5 for Mac (Top Right).

So whose fault is this bug, Microsoft's or ESPN's? The answer is a little of both. ESPN has decided to push the envelope when it comes to Web design, and it's possible that the page they designed has quirks that make it stray from the HTML rule book.

But users of the Web have no control over the people who design the pages they visit. Web surfers just want the Web to work, and that means the burden really shifts to the people who make Web browsers. Microsoft's old Mac browser works with this page, and its new one doesn't. That's going to make a lot of people unhappy -- and they're going to blame Microsoft. As they probably should.

Page-drawing aside, there's a lot to recommend IE 5. Its new look is attractive, although color-matching the Internet Explorer interface is probably not at the top of anyone's list of feature requests. Likewise, the new Auction Manager feature is clever, but was it really a much-asked-for feature, or just one that sounded good on a press release?

Still, there are useful gems within IE 5. You can configure the program's main toolbar to your heart's content, all within a very clever browser-based interface. The program's Scrapbook, which stores the entire contents of Web pages (including the graphics) for later off-line retrieval, is a huge improvement on the old Web Archive concept. That's because the IE copies the current contents of your browser into the Scrapbook, and doesn't request a new version from the server -- a quirk that meant pages from script-intensive Web sites like Amazon.com or eBay wouldn't save properly.

My favorite new feature is a teeny one. I use Internet Explorer's Favorites Bar for my top-level Web sites, the ones I visit every day. But I quickly run out of room in that small toolbar -- something that's eliminated now that you can add drop-down menus full of favorite sites to the Favorites Bar. Finally, the great new Collapse Toolbars command (just hit Command-B) will be a boon for people with small monitors -- it eliminates all toolbar junk from the IE window, making your Web windows that much easier to navigate.

With so much good in IE 5, it's hard to tell people not to try it. But be sure to check all the Web pages you visit regularly in the new browser -- it's quite possible some of them just won't work right. If you've got the hard drive space, it's probably wise to keep a copy of IE 4.5 around just in case. (And keep a copy of Netscape Navigator around while you're at it -- there are some sites that don't really work right in either version of Microsoft's browser.)

Internet Explorer 5, and especially its new page-drawing engine, are good news for Mac users. In the end, this new technology will likely go a long way toward making Mac users first-class Web citizens again, able to view Web pages just the same as the Windows users for whom the pages are often designed. But IE 5 is just a first step. Microsoft definitely still has some bugs to shake out.

Macworld.com Editor JASON SNELL ( jsnell@macworld.com ) has been using the Web since 1993 and has been writing about Web issues for nearly that long.

1 2 Page 1
Shop Tech Products at Amazon