Microsoft Exaggerated Downloads

Microsoft said Wednesday its new Web browser had been downloaded by more than 1 million people in record time, forcing executives to admit they had exaggerated public response to the previous version released in 1997. Microsoft declared in a news release that customer downloads of Internet Explorer 5, released a week ago for free distribution over the Internet, "more than tripled those of the previous record-setting Internet Explorer 4.0.''

IE5 did not pass the 1 million mark until the fifth day after the product launch on March 18, a Microsoft executive said. But back in October 1997, Microsoft trumpeted claims that IE4 exceeded 1 million downloads in just two days, marking a new record. The figures should be comparable, because in both cases they represent only customers who downloaded the software from Microsoft's own Web site, not the many partner sites where IE is also posted.

The 1 million figure announced in 1997 was achieved by counting anyone who downloaded a tiny piece of code for the browser called the "Active Setup executable,'' explains Mike Nichols, a Microsoft product manager. Only a small percentage of those people actually completed downloading the massive Web browser itself, he says. Microsoft didn't mention this fact until now. "With IE5 we made the choice to be more rigorous and count only complete downloads,'' Nichols says. "Either way you measure it, IE5 is more than triple the downloads'' of the previous version.

Overeager for Success?
Disclosure of the misleading news release provides a glimpse into how Microsoft's marketing machine buttresses efforts to increase its share of the Internet browser market, which in October 1997 was still dominated by rival Netscape. Both companies say the browser market now is split about evenly between the two. Netscape, now a unit of America Online, contends Netscape Navigator and Communicator holds a substantial lead in the business market. Also, IE4's 1997 release came as the Justice Department was intensifying its investigation of Microsoft's business practices, but before it accused the software giant of improperly forcing computer makers to install the browser along with Windows.

The government lost that case, but then filed the much broader antitrust action against Microsoft that is currently in trial. Microsoft's image has taken a beating at the trial, where government lawyers have scored courtroom points by challenging the credibility of the company's executives on the witness stand. Microsoft has defended its actions in part by saying it has integrated the Web browser ever more tightly with Windows to satisfy customer demand.


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