Microsoft shows that it has finally seen the light


TAKE COVER! THE paradigms are shifting again. Last year it was the $500 Internet computer, which was supposed to transmogrify the computing universe. Heralded as a bolt of inspiration from the computer gods on Mount Silicon, the $500 networked PC is likely to arrive not because of some profound paradigm shift, but rather simply because computers are getting cheaper all the time.

Now comes the Microsoft Corp., trumpeting another paradigm shift. Microsoft says the software that people have used for the last 20 years is old-fashioned and will have to have its paradigms replaced later this fall. (Hold on to your wallets.)

To hear Microsoft tell it, the forthcoming Internet Explorer 4.0 program will fundamentally change the way people use computers by allowing them to concentrate on the content of what they are doing, rather than the messy details of files, folders, applications and data types.

Explorer 4.0 is also supposed to help blur the distinction between information that is stored on the user's PC and information that is stored on computer networks, including the Internet. The Internet is emerging as a key part of the computing experience, Microsoft says.

Microsoft is right, of course. It is just that companies like Sun Microsystems, Netscape, IBM and Apple, all of which have been shipping paradigm-shifted software for some time now, deserve some recognition for showing Microsoft the light.

Programs like Sun's Java, Netscape's Navigator and Apple's Cyberdog, along with underlying technologies like Open Doc, have been going in this direction for some time now. With its announcement of Internet Explorer 4.0, Microsoft is endorsing these ideas and announcing that it will have its own products to compete with them.

The focus of the personal computing industry is, indeed, changing from stand-alone, desktop computers to networked, distributed computing devices, with an emphasis on linking to the Internet.

On the software side, the shrink-wrapped packages that contain individual, monolithic applications are eventually going to disappear, to be replaced by object-oriented software components that are downloaded from the network.

These new mix-and-match software components will allow people to arrange all their work in documents that include text, sound, graphics, video and other forms of communication. Each of these elements will be smart, in the sense that they come with their own tools for completing the tasks they were assigned.

For example, one might construct an electronic-mail message to send to one's mother, with a spoken greeting from the grandchildren, a video clip of the new puppy and a World Wide Web address linked to the school computer where the children's art work is displayed.

Grandmother can simply click on each element, or object, and the object will automatically perform its preassigned task.

If Grandmother's computer is linked to the Internet, she could put a stock portfolio object in the corner of her screen and, by clicking on it, go to the Internet for a current price update. Or she could have a document on screen that exists to notify her whenever Albert Belle hits a homer.

Sounds great, right?

Apple recently released some interesting but still too tricky software called Cyberdog 1.1, which requires a Power Mac with at least 16 megabytes of memory, the latest system software and a fast modem connection to the Internet.

Cyberdog is based on Open Doc, a set of technologies endorsed by basically the entire cast of industry characters other than Microsoft. Open Doc is the key to Apple's future software strategy and its showcase for object technology.

Cyberdog is essentially a library of Open Doc parts, all contained in a document called the Starting Point. The library includes parts that can browse the Web, read and write electronic mail, read Usenet news groups and handle other Internet services like file transfers (FTP), gopher and telnet.

Cyberdog comes with parts called logs and notebooks that make it easy to keep track of all these rich documents. But Cyberdog is not completely house-trained yet, so consider it an experiment. The test is whether Apple can train it before Microsoft comes calling.

Pub Date: 8/05/96

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