Bill Gates does make mistakes. One of his biggest mistakes was thinking that Microsoft was bigger than the Internet. He seriously thought he could build a separate, proprietary network that would rival, if not replace, the Internet. Of course he was wrong. But when Gates makes a mistake, he makes sure that it's rectified pretty quickly.
In December 1995, Microsoft announced a strategy U-turn and embraced the Internet wholeheartedly. Microsoft staffers went round uttering a new mantra: "Embrace and Extend," a new code for an old Microsoft trick, copying other people's ideas and making them sell. It meant to embrace existing Internet standards (TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML) and extend them to do new tasks based on a revamped line of Microsoft business software from the operating system down.
Back then, there were grand claims about how no one, not even Microsoft, could dominate the Internet, and they were right. But no one anticipated the aggression that Microsoft would use in defending its territory on the desktop. If it couldn't control the Internet it was going to make damn sure that its tools were used to exploit the Internet for business.
Gates has been quoted as saying: "If 1996 was the year that Microsoft embraced the Internet wholeheartedly, 1997 will be the year that Microsoft and our partners extend our reach further into the enterprise and show the corporate world just how inexpensive and trouble-free networked computing can be."
Microsoft's turnaround stunned its rivals. The browser war was born.
In a few short months Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) went from a thinly disguised version of Mosaic to a state-of-the-art browser, which in many people's eyes is now technically superior to Netscape's Navigator. Netscape has now paid Microsoft the ultimate compliment - its latest browser looks remarkably like IE 3.0.
Matt Townend, Marketing Director of UUNet Pipex, believes the browser war is over. "Netscape has given up on the browser. Microsoft has defended its territory very well."
It's a view also shared by Netscape. "Microsoft has done well, but it had to. It put out reports saying how well it has done invading Netscape's market share. But when Netscape has 90 per cent market share you're bound to lose some," says Sam Sethi, Netscape UK marketing chief.
Not necessarily true. Microsoft's history proves that maintaining a dominant market share is possible. "For Netscape, the browser war is over. It's done and dusted. Microsoft says it won the war, and we say we did. So where's the next battle, on the desktop?" asks Sethi.
Since December 95, Microsoft has been good at keeping its word. A stream of improved versions of IE have been freely available on the Web, a slick Web-enabled Office 97 has been launched, and FrontPage 97 - its enterprise-level Web authoring package - is far better than the first version. This was hastily rebadged after the acquisition of its original developer, Vermeer Technology.
There have also been new email tools in OutLook, and for the back office, Internet and intranet servers based around NT, now gaining ground on Unix.
Even its programming tools are being spiced up to take advantage of the Web.
Does it bug you?
Microsoft's strategy has been to integrate its software and operating systems so they all work with the Internet in the same way. The results have been only partially successful so far. Some of its innovations, especially in IE 3.0, have been brilliant. Elsewhere, as in Office 97, the old Microsoft bugs have reared their heads again, as anyone who has struggled to get the all-in-one email and information manager OutLook to work with different email systems can attest.
Sethi is quick to point the finger at Microsoft. "It has problems. There are rumours that IE 4.0 will not work as an add-on to Windows 95/NT and is in fact the shell for Memphis, Windows 97. This is why it was delayed.
There are some problems with the Application Programming Interface (API)." A major part of IE 4.0 is the active desktop, the ability to turn a desktop into a dynamic container for "pushed" information from the Internet. According to Sethi, it isn't an add-on or an application, it's a shell. "So it won't work with Windows 95, NT, 3.1 or Macs." Some even suggest the active desktop will never arrive on Windows 95.
The dream of turning the Windows desktop into one big browser for both Web and PC-based data and support for what Microsoft is calling active HTML may have hit the rocks. Not surprisingly, Microsoft dismisses such talk of problems. "IE 4.0 will be released by the middle of 1997.
It will run on Windows 95 and NT and will be an option with Memphis like the original Windows 95 Plus pack. That is definite," says Jeremy Gittins at Microsoft UK.
Early user reports of IE 4.0 do hint that there may be troubles ahead.
So far it merely makes use of the desktop browser facility under Windows 95. The active part has not been demonstrated under Windows 95. So are there unforeseen difficulties? Gittins will only say that "there are no difficulties with IE 4.0" and that "it's a key part of Memphis".
If you look at early versions of Memphis it looks exactly the same as Windows 95. The improvements lie in low-level tweaks. Obviously, something that looks just like Windows 95 is hard to sell as a major upgrade. The difference has got to come with IE 4.0 and the dynamic desktop. Perhaps Microsoft is preparing Windows 95 users for the possibility of not being able to run the active desktop. They will have to upgrade if they want it. This also leaves the NT compatibility question unresolved.
The stakes are high. If Microsoft gets the integration of the Internet and Graphical User Interface (GUI) working, it will have an unprecedented technical lead over its rivals. Microsoft is thinking beyond mere browsers.
Netscape must compete to survive and the crucial battleground will now be platform compatibility, or the lack of it.
Netscape knows this and is promising a similar active shell that will run under all platforms. If it gets this to work, and Microsoft can only offer a brand new operating system (Memphis) in return, it could face user resistance no matter how sexy the technology. Witness the continuing resistance to Windows 95 in the business world.
On the other hand, Microsoft's major weapon is the sheer size of its user base. If it succeeds in blending Windows 95, NT and Memphis into a single Internet-compliant operating system it could be onto a winner. It doesn't have to worry that much about Mac and Unix users.
What many Windows 3.1-based businesses are waiting for is a good, solid reason to move.
"We're beginning to see resistance to Windows 95 break down and a move to NT. It can't be long before Microsoft says enough to the legion of Windows 3.1 users," says Jeff Jones of UK PC manufacturer Carrera.
"Microsoft still has an amazing advantage. Because it owns the desktop, what it does to lock the Internet into Windows can only be an advantage," adds Sethi.
But perhaps Microsoft has a more fundamental problem. Businesses may be fascinated by the Internet and intranets but are yet to be convinced that the technology is a real benefit. Microsoft also has more rivals than just Netscape in selling HTTP-based GroupWare tools.
In the Internet domination war, analysts and observers often focus on Microsoft and Netscape but overlook a third party, Lotus. The IBM subsidiary feels it has a part to play in all this. It intends to launch an email/PIM tool called LookOut, designed to compete with OutLook and a collaborative Web tool codenamed Maui to take on Netscape's Communicator. Also being developed is Kona, a Java-based suite of office tools for delivery via the intranet.
It ain't over till it's over
Lotus is reportedly putting a lot of effort into promoting SmartSuite against Office 97. As far as it's concerned, the fight for the office suite market is definitely not over. It's also fighting hard against Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) with its Domino Web Server and pitching the Domino Merchant Server bang up against Microsoft's Merchant Server.
This is a threat that Microsoft should take seriously. Domino is getting good press reviews and corporate IT departments are looking into it. Lotus is said to be readying the same level of support for corporate developers that has worked so well for Microsoft in the past.
Microsoft has really done its homework on FrontPage to bring it into the Office family. It shares both components and an interface with Office 97. Pitched at a low price, FrontPage looks like a good bet and has enough advanced features in it to create professional Web sites for businesses.
But as Microsoft knows, innovation in this field comes from third parties.
It's already courting NetObjects, whose Fusion product has won plaudits for giving corporate Web designers the DTP-type controls they have been crying out for. Insiders suggest this object-oriented approach to designing Web sites, with no recourse to typing HTML commands, may find its way into FrontPage or another Microsoft product. If Microsoft can't develop the technology itself, it'll simply go out and acquire it.
It's not without its blemishes
Office 97 is a powerful tool, but anomalies abound. A word file will open in IE 3.0, complete with tools, but not the other way around. Try going to the Web from Office and pages are launched separately in IE.
And if it isn't running, you have to wait for it to launch. In Explorer, you can go back and forth between Office docs and Web pages and turn docs into Web docs if you also have FrontPage 97 installed. This is genuine integration, but why is it missing in the newer Office 97.
IIS has made some major in-roads into sites already comfortable with NT. Microsoft claims IIS is the only Web server properly integrated with NT. This is not a grandiose claim and one that certainly appeals to Microsoft-based businesses.
Microsoft's Merchant Server is a dedicated server application that also works with NT. This is a system enabling businesses to set themselves up online, complete with an automated payment system built in, including what the company claims is a secure credit card payment method.
So far, the number of companies using online shopping are few and mostly US-based (reflecting the security issues), but in the UK Tesco has built a state-of-the-art Web site using Merchant software.
The site was designed by Manchester-based Interactive Developments. Its Managing Director Roger Collins explained why the company took the Microsoft route. "We were attracted by the speed of development and flexibility of Merchant Server and the fact that it integrates so well with other Microsoft products. The whole Tesco project was done in six weeks. There was no really good case for choosing Netscape products given the price differential." Cost is important, but Collins highlights the one big advantage in Microsoft's Internet strategy - the value of an installed user base.
Only time will tell
This, more than anything, will decide the outcome. Users may not love its products, they put up with bugs in newly released software and secretly admire Netscape and others for "having a go". But business has huge investments in Microsoft tools and legacy systems and they are not about to throw it away.
If Microsoft provides good enough tools, at the right price, to take advantage of the new possibilities of the Internet, businesses will probably buy them. Fundamentally, it's that simple. And Microsoft is not about to slow up as Gittins points out: "We have put our money on the Internet. It's the pivot for the future."
Paul Fisher is Managing Editor of Personal Computer World ([email protected]).
Inside Explorer - a browser comes to life
Getting hard information from Microsoft about IE 4.0 is proving to be tough, but it has released some details of what we can expect when it is finally ready in summer 97.
At the moment, this much is certain about IE 4.0. It will make heavy use of "push" technology from vendors such as PointCast and BackWeb and will push information to desktops from commercial organisations, from the Web, or through local intranets.
Microsoft is submitting yet another new standard to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) called the Channel Definition Format (CDF). Using this in conjunction with IE 4.0, everybody will be able to set up their own push channel to deliver information to other users' desktops. This is what Microsoft means when it talks of the "active desktop". Instead of the Windows 95 desktop holding static shortcuts and folders, users will be able to add animated components such as pushed news feeds and video from the Web.
Live Web pages can even be used as the desktop.
The other certainty is that IE 4.0 will turn the desktop into a browser with a Web view complete with navigation buttons to explore files, folders and volumes. Using this option Windows 95 users should be able to add an address window to the start bar, while the start menu will offer two new options - a Web Publishing Wizard and NetShow. NetShow will allow low-band-width video to be sent to the desktop, again from the Web or a local intranet.
The Web Publishing Wizard is designed to post Web sites to almost any Web server available. Microsoft will also bundle a low-end personal Web server with every copy of IE 4.0.
Users will have the choice of converting their existing desktop into the new Active Shell or just use what Microsoft describes as the basic version of IE 4.0. This will offer a uniform look among a suite of applications, including mail and news as well as support for dynamic HTML and ActiveX.
Interestingly, Microsoft speaks of those without the "system resources" that might wish to go with this option. Does this mean that the shell upgrade will need yet more memory? Microsoft isn't saying.
Finally, Microsoft promises that versions of IE 4.0 for Mac and Windows 3.1.1 users will arrive within 90 days of the Windows 95 version. How those users will get to enjoy the active desktop isn't clear given the difference in APIs. It may be that those users will only benefit from a new look suite of applications (the aforementioned basic IE 4.0) as making other operating systems behave like the enhanced version of Windows 95 is actually impossible.
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