By Mike Elgan, Editor
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Internet Explorer 4.0
You've heard this one before--the more things change, the more they stay the same. Not so with Windows. With a single menu addition, Microsoft could well have changed the Windows computing model forever.
The current win95 shell offers four file-viewing options: Large Icons, Small Icons, List and Details. The latest revision of the Windows user interface, Internet Explorer 4.0, adds a fifth called Web View. This integrates Web browser functionality directly into Windows Explorer. Here's how that small but radical addition will change forever the way your Windows desktop looks and works.
It's been six years since Microsoft chairman Bill Gates outlined his vision for the future of personal computing. He called it "Information at Your Fingertips," a world in which all the information you could possibly need is just a click away. At the time, we all wondered if he could pull it off.
Internet Explorer 4.0--in alpha test at press time and due out this winter for Windows 95 and NT--enhances Windows Explorer with hooks into the Internet and browser-like functionality that will make both the Internet and your company intranet as accessible as the files sitting on your hard disk. The new shell enhancement goes a long way toward realizing Gates' vision-but it's not at all what he originally had in mind.
Here's a look at what "Information at Your Fingertips" means in the late '90s.
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Let's start with the nomenclature. Internet Explorer 4.0 is the product name Microsoft picked for Windows' browser-enabled shell, which was previously known as the Nashville project.
Rather than impose a replacement shell on users, the update adds browser-like features via an option called Web View. You activate the feature by selecting Web View from Explorer's View menu, from the Context menu of the Desktop or from any folder. It's your choice-you don't have to activate Web View if you don't want to.
As the mouse pointer passes over icons, they're automatically selected and underlined. No clicking is necessary to select an icon. Microsoft calls this feature Hover Select. The type turns blue and the pointer turns into a hand, just as it does in a Web browser. Instead of the traditional double-click, it requires only a single click to launch applications and open documents and folders.
In the dual-pane Explorer view, the Web View option shows a hierarchical tree representation of the site in the left pane and the currently selected page in the right, just as if it were a standalone browser. As in the standard Explorer left pane, clicking on the little plus and minus signs next to folders expands and contracts the folders. For the hierarchical tree feature to work, the site's Webmaster must explicitly support it, or you must install a third-party utility from Micrografx (and possibly other vendors in the future) that scans unsupported sites and builds the hierarchy for you.
In addition to enhancing Explorer windows, the IE 4.0 shell brings Windows wallpaper to life. Microsoft says you'll be able to customize your Desktop with live stock tickers, company announcements, news updates, sports scores, personalized messages or almost any other data from the Internet. You customize with Notepad or any HTML authoring tool, just as you would a local .HTM document.
Imagine your Windows wallpaper as a Web page without the browser's buttons, title bar or scroll bar and with borderless frames, each frame deliver-ing information from a different site. That's what's known as the Active Desktop concept.
The most Active Desktop-like product available today is probably the PointCast Network ( http://www.pointcast.com). PointCast is a free service that delivers information from the Web to your desktop at a user-selected frequency. The information you see can be customized by pointing and clicking on broad categories. The data is projected onto a screen saver that churns through all the categories you choose. It shows a ticker, videos, weather maps and more.
One major difference between PointCast and the IE 4.0 Active Desktop is that PointCast gives you information only from PointCast sources. With IE 4.0, you pick your own. PointCast takes advantage of its captive audience by promoting itself and events with which it's involved. Microsoft plans to do the same. When asked by a reporter in early August, Microsoft executives did not rule out explicit advertising broadcast to Windows 95 and NT desktops.
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Welcome to the IE 4 Pre Release Version
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The placement of "windows to the Internet" (pun intended) throughout Windows itself changes the whole psychology of using a PC. Instead of "launching" a browser and "going out" to the Internet once in a while, Internet information is always right there in front of you. This capability is likely to create more Internet users and make current Net enthusiasts even more active online.
Those of you who don't have a constant all-day corporate connection to the Internet are probably hearing alarm bells right about now. But the experience of using a PC will change for you as well, even if you dial up the Internet via modem and a service provider. Much of your browsing could be replaced, at lower cost, by scheduled updates of exactly the information you normally seek by wandering around in cyberspace. Whether you connect to the Internet all day-or log on just once a day-you'll probably find an Active Desktop more useful than an inactive one.
It's also important to note that Microsoft may bundle with the shell update a killer package of Internet Explorer add-ons. The company hasn't finalized its plans yet, but it has committed to making IE 4.0 available free. The add-on utilities might require buying some kind of ÒInternet Plus Pack.Ó Many or all of these programs may be available free on the Web. Some likely candidates for the bundle include the following products (all are from Microsoft except WinFrame, which is a Citrix product):
Personal Web Server. Also available with Microsoft's FrontPage HTML authoring system and Windows NT 4.0, Personal Web Server lets you use your desktop Windows PC as an intranet server. Web documents stored on your hard drive can be made visible to-and browsable by-your co-workers over the intranet.
The number of users who can connect to the server is limited (to no more than 10 simultaneous connections in the current NT 4.0 beta), so Personal Web Server won't compete with Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) for NT Server.
NetMeeting. NetMeeting is an Active X-based Internet phone (it lets you place phone calls to other NetMeeting users), chat program and whiteboard application (which lets two or more users collaborate on a single document in real time). It works over a LAN as easily as it does over the Internet.
Internet Mail and News. This add-on lets you use the Exchange Inbox for both Inter-net mail and new groups. It automatically decodes binary files.
ActiveMovie. Active- Movie plays MPEG Audio and Video, .AVI, QuickTime, AU, .WAV, MIDI and AIFF files seamlessly from within IE 3.0 or 4.0. According to Microsoft, it's capable of playing MPEG movies at 24 frames per second with 11KHz stereo on a Pentium 90, even with a cheap graphics card. It'll also take advantage of MPEG hardware to deliver much better video performance.
Comic Chat. This Internet Explorer add-on is an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) client that lets Comic Chat users see each other graphically as avatars in what look like comic strips. Each user can pick a character and use the "Emotion Wheel" to select the expression and body language of his or her avatar. The text you enter during the chat is visible to anyone on the IRC channel, but only fellow Comic Chat users can see your avatar.
Citrix WinFrame Client. Here's Microsoft's answer to the network computer. WinFrame lets you run the Windows interface on a client while running the back end or "guts" (either Win95 or NT) on a remote server over TCP/IP.
The advantage is that 32-bit Windows and high-performance apps can be run by a user with wimpy hardware using the Internet or company intranet. To take advantage of the client, you need to be running the WinFrame Server. (See Center of the Universe in this issue's Enterprise Windows, for more on Win-Frame Server.)
Web Publishing Wizard. This goof-proof wizard guides novices through the creation and posting of .HTM documents.
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In addition to bundled utilities, Microsoft is enhancing most of its shrink-wrap products, especially Office 97, for better integration with the Internet and IE 4.0. The next version of Office is a Web-obsessed suite in which all document-producing applications can churn out HTML files.
A new PIM/e-mail/scheduler, called Outlook, provides links and hooks to the Internet and intranets. The entire suite will support Microsoft's ActiveX technology. (See the review of Outlook in this issue.)
IE 4.0 will probably come with plentiful links to Microsoft's Web sites, placing company information right in front of everyone who uses it. The company will be able to alert you to new versions of its products, pitch new services and point out the benefits of Microsoft-supported standards and technologies.
IE 4.0 does not necessarily have to replace your current standalone browser. You can use both IE 4.0 and, for instance, Netscape Navigator if you choose. But Internet Explorer has become good enough that a lot of people might not bother to use Navigator now that IE is an integral part of the Windows shell.
Critics will certainly cry "foul" at Microsoft's ambitious strategy with Internet Explorer 4.0, and it's unclear at this point whether the initiative will help or harm the health of the Web or its infant Windows software market.
One thing is certain, though: Given the legal scrutiny Microsoft inevitably receives whenever it leverages Windows to gain application market share, the arrival of Internet Explorer 4.0 is likely to inject new life into the U.S. Justice Department.