Troubleshooting: What Causes Internet Explorer Errors?

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Q: Every time I browse the Internet, I get the error message: “Microsoft Internet Explorer has encountered a problem and needs to close.” Whether it happens five or 30 minutes after I open the Web browser, it always happens. I use Windows XP and IE 6.x. What’s causing this?

– Tim

A: This seems to be a common problem with IE that started back when Windows XP was in its beta phases. To clarify, Windows application errors are not caused by user errors. It may be related to something you installed that isn’t compatible with the rest of your applications, but that sort of problem is caused by programming mistakes and unexpected faults in the hardware. The good thing is that, although you didn’t cause the problem, you do have the power to fix it by identifying the cause and resolving the issue.

The first step is to identify your control level on the machine: Is this a home computer, or do you use it at work? If it’s the latter, do you have administrative rights to it? If you can install and uninstall applications and get into the settings of Internet Explorer, you can keep reading for a list of possible ways to fix the problem. If not, you need to open a trouble ticket with your company’s IT team to take care of this.

It appears one of the most common causes of this problem is third-party add-ons, which are applications that allow you to view Flash files (.SWF), your nice-looking toolbars and many others. Most of them work great, but there may be compatibility issues among the add-ons or between the add-ons and Internet Explorer.

To resolve this, go to Start, Control Panel, Internet Options, Advanced tab and then un-check “Enable third-party browser extensions.” Close Internet Explorer and open it again; then start working on it as usual. If the problem does not crop up within the next day or so, it probably was one of the add-ons that was causing it. You can then selectively enable the well-known ones, restart Internet Explorer and try it again for a day. Sooner or later, you should have your add-ons usable again without those application errors. Just be patient and systematic, and you will figure it out.

If the problem didn’t disappear when you disabled the add-ons, re-enable them — since they are probably not the cause of this problem — and try the second most common fix, which is to disable smart tags. Smart tags are an early selection-based search feature found in later versions of Microsoft Word and beta versions of the IE 6 and IE 8 Web browser by which the application recognizes certain words or types of data and converts them to a hyperlink.

Selection-based search allows a user to start an online service from any other page using only the mouse. Microsoft initially intended for the technology to be built into its Windows XP operating system but changed its plans because of public criticism. Some feared smart tags could be used for user tracking or other data-collection purposes that might violate users’ privacy. In response to the criticism, Microsoft removed the technology from its Windows XP operating system and made it a feature that could be turned on or off in Internet Explorer and Office XP.

To disable this, go to Tools, Internet Options, Advanced tab, and then clear the “Enable smart tags” check box. Once more, close Internet Explorer, open it again and give it a try for a day or two. If the problem persists, then there are a few more steps you can take. These are available on Microsoft’s support Web site under article ID 293623, 884838 and many others — just do a search on the error message and you will have plenty of options to choose from.

Besides that, make sure you are up-to-date on the patches and service packs, and try alternate browsers such as Firefox. Or perhaps it’s time to reinstall Windows XP. 

Avner Izhar, CCIE, CCVP, CCSI, is a consulting system engineer at World Wide Technology Inc., a leading systems integrator providing technology and supply chain solutions. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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