]Microsoft's Active Desktop has been officially launched at last as part of the Internet Explorer 4.0 (IE) rollout. While much attention has been devoted to IE 4.0 as a competitor to Netscape Communicator, little has been said about the Active Desktop component. Currently, Active Desktop is an option you can choose to have on your desktop, but it is expected it will become "the" desktop view users will get in Windows 98. So, what is it and what's the fuss about? Put simply, Microsoft has developed an interface that dispenses with the need for a separate web browser interface. But Active Desktop is much more than a tarted up interface. The central message behind the software is the seamless integration between the operating system, the web and the presentation interface. It is important to understand that Microsoft sees the Active Desktop as the means by which it can secure its position in the Internet market and so protect its near monopoly of the desktop. Whether this is a good or bad thing is another matter. The usability and features in the Active Desktop are matters of great concern. When you first switch on the Active Desktop, you immediately notice that it has a different look and feel to Windows 95. For instance, files and folders are opened by using the same single click as when triggering hotspots on web pages, but there is the presence of a new icon called The Internet, which is displayed in Windows Explorer alongside My Computer and Network Neighbourhood. This is the first confirmation that, in Microsoft's eyes, the Internet becomes an extension of your disk and network drives. Microsoft extends this integration aspect further, however, with pages visited shown as a hierarchical arrangement of HTML files. Microsoft realised that it could not take on the world and insist that all documents be seen as Word files, yet it needed to take advantage of the rich content of HTML. The result? Everything can now be shown as HTML. This means that when you view any page on the desktop, rather than through another application, the default view shows it as an HTML document. What's more, when you select a page, it appears in the right-hand pane of Windows Explorer as an active web page. At this point, it is worth exploring what "active" means here. In this context, assuming you have an external link to the Internet, when you click on hotspots inside the document, you are taken to the relevant web page. If you don't have an outside link, you can still see the page, provided it has been cached. There are options to schedule updates to any or all documents of interest. In offering this facility, Microsoft has provided users with a single view of both their local machine and the Internet-connected world. From an end user standpoint, there is a blurring of the distinction as to what's internal and what's external so that on a day-to-day basis the location of any particular piece of information is of no concern to the user. Using a new web view option, hard disks and their contents appear on a special web page within Explorer. Microsoft describes Active Desktop as a "customisable dashboard" where HTML can be examined and modified using a wizard. You can create bookmarks to files on your local hard drive which you can jump to as you would external web pages. In this sense, the pages are indeed "active". You can, for instance, go out onto the web, find ActiveX controls and then drop them onto the desktop as objects, which in turn can be manipulated. Sounds wonderful in practice, but I wonder about the relevance or application in the real world. In the promotional video the demonstrator shows a spinning clock being dropped onto the desktop. Looks cute, but where is the value for the end user? It's at this point that one starts to wonder whether the Active Desktop has anything of substance beneath the web gloss. Okay, automatic updating of pages may be worthwhile and might be regarded as the ultimate in applying push technology to the desktop, but it is no better than Netscape's Netcaster or any of the other "push" products out there. In addition, there is the immediate hidden cost of connecting out to the web. This is ignored as an issue by Microsoft, presumably because connecting to the Internet through a local call in America is either very cheap or free. Unfortunately in the UK, connections are anything but cheap. Most ISPs offer national call rates, but I estimate that until local calls are free, then the connection costs alone will make it prohibitive for stand alone end modem users and hardly bearable for ISDN users. The equivalent of two hours' use per working day is around 132 hours per quarter. At BT's ISDN local and national rates (split evenly between the two) this will set you back around #355 plus VAT per quarter. Assuming you can get a discount of 10%, this is still #320 VAT inclusive. For a small business, this is a significant on-cost that can only be justified if additional revenues are generated as a result of Internet use. For larger businesses where there are numerous ISDN connections for remote users, one hesitates to guess the total cost. The issue is that to get the best from this facility, you really need to update information regularly and that means making an external connection over which you may have no control. It can be argued this is no different to using any other "push" system, but the point is that making it easy does not encourage people to think hard enough about the cost/benefit of increased usage. However, a significant upside to the Active Desktop lies in the ability to set-up PCs for non-technical users. Prior to the Active Desktop, users could not use the Internet without launching additional applications. Active Desktop dispenses with this requirement, for the reasons outlined above. From a usability standpoint, this means the learning curve for core Internet use and file management are significantly reduced. This is extremely important for any business which is making the transition from character based - or to a lesser extent Windows 3.x - to 32-bit operating systems, because the training investment cost is slashed. However, the Active Desktop poses significant questions, especially in connection with the prolific use of ActiveX on which it relies heavily. First, ActiveX controls are fundamentally insecure. Unlike Java applets, they are not confined within a security "sandbox", and the Authenti-code scheme used by Microsoft means there is the possibility of creating viruses which look innocent. Now, if you think this is scare mongering, one only has to look at the concerns expressed in the news and in the anti-virus community to realise that a rogue ActiveX control could wreak havoc in the network. Second, large enterprises are rejecting ActiveX for secure transactions in favour of Java based encryption, as witnessed by the recent adoption of Java technology in the smart card world by the likes of Visa, MasterCard and Mondex. If that wasn't enough, Microsoft has a track record of being a poor business partner and has recently rejected the use of 100% pure Java. Visiting the Microsoft web site using Navigator 4.0 reveals further compatibility issues because the Java scripting embedded in the MS site does not function properly when used with Navigator 4.0. It is difficult to apportion responsibility but it is the first time users have seen serious trouble of this kind and it does seem to be restricted to the Microsoft site. This leads some people to the conclusion that for the first time, Microsoft is blatantly trying to shut out its competition. Whether it is successful or otherwise is a moot point, but it is a worrying escalation of the competitive stakes. In software, there is no such thing as "the best", because all software is capable of criticism. However, many people are of the view that without a healthy competitive market, end users will get stuck with the lowest common denominator. In the context of the Active Desktop, while there are plenty of usability gains, the depth of substance is limited. What's more, Microsoft is on record as saying that there will be fewer major applications releases in 1998. If it believes the end user community will buy into the Active Desktop story then it can make those kind of statements with impunity because in combination with IE 4.0, Active Desktop really does have the potential to knock out swathes of competition. We're already seeing signs of this with the likes of Corel - a long time proponent of Java - suddenly making a U-turn and talking about a "co-existence" strategy with Microsoft. Netscape's Communicator is already suffering from a perceived lack of functionality when compared with IE 4.0 and it recently had to hack off Navigator to keep the browser community happy while it beefs up the remaining components. In use, Active Desktop is very much a work in progress that has yet to find a firm business use. Apart from being slow and needing even more memory than the now "standard" 32Mb RAM, the current raft of ActiveX goodies are little more than toys. Microsoft is positioning itself so that its desktop applications can take advantage of OS, desktop and web integration. This makes commercial sense and as a first stab it is not technically bad. However, despite the wealth of features compared with others in the game, there is a risk that the competition will be unable to contribute to product development. That's not the same thing as saying Microsoft has a huge technical lead, but is an acknowledgement of the way in which it has stitched the various technologies together. This is a dangerous trend and one that others need to watch. Active Desktop: legal wars and their outcome The last few weeks have seen an unseemly squabble between Microsoft and Sun spill into the American courts as each party slugs it out for standards supremacy on the Internet. Sun alleges that Microsoft is in breach of contract for failing to deliver compatible implementation of Java technology in its products. Sun is seeking an injunction to stop Microsoft from improperly using the Java Compatible logo and misleading Java developers by preventing them from delivering anything but fully Java technology implementations. Microsoft denies Sun's charges and, in typical litigious style, has counter-sued claiming a breach of "the covenant of good faith and fair dealing" and unfair competition. Microsoft also categorically denied Sun's claim that Microsoft broke its 1996 agreement to license Sun's Java programming language. The American Justice Department has joined the melee by requesting that huge fines of $1 million a day be imposed on Microsoft for anti-competitive practices. It claims the company is forcing PC makers to license the Internet Explorer browser by illegally bundling the product with the Windows operating system. The European Commission has also moved to investigate Microsoft's licensing practices, discounting and Internet activities. Sun wants Microsoft to embrace 100% pure Java as the programming language that defines what will work from an Internet applications standpoint. This is in line with Sun's efforts to create what it believes will be a level playing field in the Internet enabled enterprise applications arena. Microsoft, however, would prefer to use its proprietary ActiveX technology and thereby what amounts to a lock-in to the Windows OS. In the case of the Department of Justice action, the issue is whether a 1995 decree allows Microsoft to integrate additional features into the Windows operating system licensed to PC makers. Microsoft insists that the ability to browse the Internet is just another feature integrated into Windows, but the Justice Department insists that Explorer is a separate product. From Microsoft's perspective, all these actions have to be defeated because the concepts underpinning the Active Desktop are that the browser, interface and operating system are seamlessly integrated so you cannot distinguish between the three. From a practical standpoint, the idea has merit for the reasons outlined above. The problem is that by integrating the various elements in the way it has, Microsoft has the opportunity to eliminate competition in many aspects of the desktop market. There would, for instance, be no need to purchase a separate browser such as Netscape's Navigator. In part, this explains why Navigator has become more of a groupware product with additional mail and document management features. Apart from the fact that these legal actions will become ugly, they divert attention from the technological and practical issues related to the web and Microsoft's Active Desktop strategy. Active Desktop: how does it work? The Active Desktop is made up of two layers: an HTML background and an icon layer that sits atop the HTML background. The icon layer supports all of the features of the single Explorer, such as single click navigation and the other features discussed earlier. Integrating an HTML background layer onto the desktop means that the desktop understands HTML and all of the associated software components such as ActiveX, Java and ActiveX scripting. In fact, there is an ActiveX control that manages the positioning of all the desktop components, allowing users to move and resize them simply by using drag and drop, as well as layering components on top of each other. Desktop components are typically designed to provide short capsule or summary information in a small amount of screen space. It makes sense for desktop components to offer hyperlinks or hotspots so the user can click a designated area, and then quickly open a new browser to get the details they need.
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