By Fred Langa, Editorial Director
LAST MONTH IN this space, you read an exclusive sneak preview of Nashville, an upgrade to Windows 95 due out this winter. We based our preliminary evaluation on an extensive test-drive of an early "alpha" prototype. But since then, several WinMag editors traveled to Seattle to get more information directly from Microsoft. We can now bring you even more detail.
If you missed last month's column, check out http://www.winmag.com/flanga/ie4.htm. Meanwhile, here's a fast recap: This upgrade has been called "Nashville," "Win96" or even "Win97," but Microsoft's official name is "Internet Explorer 4.0." It may sound like just another browser, but IE4 is a sweeping look-and-feel upgrade to the entire Win95 UI that makes everything Web-enabled and Web-aware.
IE4's implications are enormous. You'll have one standard way to navigate to everything, regardless of its location. "browsing" will be the sole navigational metaphor. From a single, unified Explorer you can view files on your local hard drive, open intranet pages or surf to distant Web sites. You'll no longer need one tool for local navigation and one for the Web. Instead, your entire Win95 system becomes a browser.
To see how this is shaping up, you can download Internet Explorer 3.0 free, from http://www.microsoft.com. True, IE3 is just a browser-it won't upgrade your entire Win95 shell-but the core is identical to IE4's. By test-driving IE3, you'll be testing the central elements of IE4.
Let's start with something simple. Fire up IE3 and enter a Web site in the address box. The browser will take you to that page. Now type the path and filename of a simple data file on your hard drive-say, a Notepad file-or select File/Open and browse to an appropriate file. Either way, the file will open inside the browser frame. Now use the browser's Go Back button, and you'll return to the Web site. Press the Go Forward button, and you'll again be viewing the file on your local hard drive. Your browser doesn't care where the file resides, so you can move back and forth seamlessly.
So far, this is no big deal-many browsers behave similarly. Now try the same experiment with a word processing, spreadsheet or presentation file. If the data file was created by an OLE-compliant application (any recent release of Microsoft Office, Lotus SmartSuite or WordPerfect), your IE3 browser window will not only display the file, it will gain the appropriate toolbars for whatever file type you're viewing. Click on a word processing file, and the browser window loads the file and places your word processor's toolbars at the top of the browser window. That's because both IE3 and IE4 are full ActiveX (think of it as "OLE 3") applications.
This is very different from, say, Netscape Navigator. If you browse to a native Word document with Navigator 3.0 (at least up to Beta 6), the browser shows only a few garbage characters. You can get around this by converting the document to HTML or manually setting up Word as a "helper app," but then Word launches separately and you have two apps open instead of one. And you'll have to set up each application you want to use with Navigator.
If you have a corporate intranet, this difference should make you sit up and take notice: With IE3 and IE4, all your shared or sharable files can be viewed and used natively and in-frame without having to convert them into HTML or register each of your applications as a helper app. It's automatic. Setting up an intranet has never been easier.
IE4's browser functions aren't limited to Explorer. IE4 replaces the original underlying display paradigms of Win95 with-HTML. Your desktop becomes an HTML-based Web page with frames, run scripts and applets, and it will do all the other things Web pages do, including link to other pages either on or off your local system. In fact, most of IE4's display elements-the way the desktop and every Win95 system applet looks-are controlled through standard HTML pages stored in a special directory. (In the prototype, it's the WINDOWS\WEB directory.) You or a system administrator can modify or replace these pages with your own, giving you an incredibly easy way to add, subtract or modify items that appear on your desktop or in applets.
Here's a quick example: Add a link to your corporate help desk inside the Control Panel applet to encourage users poking around their systems to search your help desk files for approved answers to their problems. No help desk? How about offering a link to a Knowledge Base-type service so users can get sure-fire answers to their problems instead of just trying things on their own.
In the same vein, how about equipping your desktop with a real-time display of important corporate or departmental news? The early IE4 prototypes used a "frameless frame" (a borderless subwindow) on the right side of the standard desktop to display real-time news feeds from MSNBC or other Internet news sources. You could change this to show your own news feed or intranet front end.
If you don't have a full-time Internet connection, no problem. You can set IE4's Smart Favorites to refresh themselves at specific times of day or at specific intervals, and even download entire local copies of a site. You could set up IE4 to start dialing out to update all your favorite sites an hour or two before you normally use your system, so that by the time you sit down you have fresh, local copies of everything you want-all accessible at hard-drive instead of modem speeds.
And if these functions don't suit your needs, you can turn them off.
IE3 can give you a foretaste of the core of IE4. And incidentally, if you're using the very latest versions of AOL, CompuServe or WOW, you're already using a slightly modified version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. The browsers for those services are custom versions of IE2 or IE3 wrapped in slightly different packaging. But for the best idea of how IE4 will work, make sure you have a current, unmodified version of IE3, freshly downloaded from Microsoft.
Even if IE4 doesn't interest you, IE3 is worth the download because it's a state-of-the-art browser in its own right-and one that's likely to cause as many sleepless nights at Netscape as Netscape has at Microsoft. Check it out, and let me know what you think.
Fred Langa is Editorial Director of CMP's Personal Computing Group. Contact Fred via his home page at http://www.winmag.com/flanga/hotspots.htm, or in the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe Fred Langa's e-mail ID is: email@example.com