Microsoft will later this year ship a version of its Windows operating system with a web browser built-in. "We want to bring the Internet down to Windows," said Joe Belfiore, group program manager.
Belfiore, speaking at Microsoft's recent Explorer Technical Reviewers Workshop, in Redmond, loves fiddling with the knobs and buttons of his latest project - Internet Explorer 4.0.
IE4.0 is the next version of the Microsoft web browser. In fact, so determined is the company to make it a success that more research and development has gone into IE4.0 than for any other Microsoft product - including Windows 95.
So why does an Internet browser need more R&D spent on it than an operating system? Simply that the browser is no longer something you launch as a separate application. Once you've tried IE4.0 out, you'll see that it has taken on the role of the Windows 95 file Explorer and will be the most frequently used application on the system. It's a mini-revolution that will take a bit of getting used to - and that's just in using it.
Wait until you see what it can do.
Turn it on, boot it up and in a few minutes, IE4.0 will transform a boring old desktop into a compelling tool. IE4.0's so-called "active components" will go off on to the Internet, trawl-through the maze of information that's available and deliver selected highlights direct to a user's desktop.
But IE4.0 is not just a browser. It's also part of a powerful marketing ploy to generate lots of extra business for Microsoft. Coupled with the active components, IE4.0 will deliver rich streaming multimedia direct to a user's desktop, making it a potent environment for potential advertisers.
During demos of IE4.0 at the Explorer Technical Reviewers Workshop, company officials bombarded journalists with examples of what the web will look like when the product launches later this summer.
What Microsoft showed was impressive and delivered unprecedented levels of sophistication and speed. But it was also worrying as the computer suddenly becomes akin to a TV set with commercials trying desperately hard to get people to spend their money. If last week's demonstrations were anything to go by, it won't be long before users can log on to a weather channel on the Net and find Gene Kelly dancing across the screen to the sounds of Singing in the Rain, advertising an umbrella which he then flaps over a button marked "buy now".
But it's not just streaming audio and video that makes IE4.0 an important product. The advent of Dynamic HTML (DHTML) has developers drooling. At the workshop, Microsoft showed at least 10 examples of DHTML and why it is no longer necessary to use Java (or ActiveX) to "create the coolest pages".
Michael Wallent, lead program manager of the DHTML team at Microsoft, related how he once left his wife in bed and spent hours writing an asteroids screen saver in DHTML. The screen saver works just like the original game - a fact which his wife is apparently delighted about.
DHTML could become very important. Using simple scripts of no more than 20 lines, Wallent was able to create lines of text (over images) that responded to mouse movements and key controls - tasks usually associated with either Macromedia's Shockwave or Sun's Java. For example, moving a cursor over a heading caused it to change colour and then drop down a menu of seven other text items. This was all done in 14 lines of DHTML.
Impressive - particularly if you are a web master running a site with little time or resource for a Java alternative.
According to Microsoft, Netscape won't be supporting DHTML. Instead the company, whose Navigator browser has been losing considerable ground to IE, has opted to develop its own version of DHTML known as Layers, which has been rejected by the W3C committee.
Netscape's decision could leave it in a very awkward situation when IE4.0 ships. The company has already been widely criticised for not supporting Microsoft's ActiveX (although a plug-in is available) and now risks lacking support for one of the most powerful techniques on the Internet for creating simple, interactive scripts.
Wallent believes Netscape will be forced to consider DHTML because, he claims, "Layers doesn't work", effectively preventing users from viewing DHTML sites. Netscape would be wise to address the issue swiftly rather than rely on third party developers to fix the problem in the form of a plug-in.
If it fails to do so, users will have yet another reason for switching from Navigator to Internet Explorer.
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