The browser is the environment, Novell does Java, and Wall Street finds searching

Quote of the week: "Soon the players will be sending email to the dugout during the game." [Len Berman, sportscaster and fellow Port Washingtonian, on last night's WNBC-TV news.]

This past week I saw the convergence of three important trendlets: the rise of the Netscape browser-as-environment, the week that Wall Street found search tools, and the week that Novell got Java religion. All fit together somehow: read on and see if you can find the common thread and who is at the sweet spot (pardon the product pun) of all three.

First, Netscape has become the new programming environment, akin to where 1-2-3 was in 1982-3. There are plug-ins, off-line caching collectors, and other do-dads that are guaranteed to enhance your surfing experience. It is still too early to call a winner here, and some of the products that I've seen haven't yet struck the right note (such as First Floor and MilkTruck, both of which seem to have gotten plenty of hype but offer way little improvement over Basic Browsing). I did see a demo of one that could turn out to be important from MobileWare. It collects your URLs while you sleep and caches them on your local PC.

Remember how hard it was to program your 1-2-3 spreadsheet back in the early 1980s? Well, for those of you that are too young (one of the product intros I attended at Interop had a 19 year old CEO!), it wasn't any cake walk. You had a limited user interface, a command syntax that was brutal, a set of documentation that was too technical for users and too incomplete for programmers, and lots of incompatible hardware and operating systems (CPM and the 3270PC were still big back then, for those that forgot).

Now look at your average Netscape plug-in: first of all, you can't just "plug" it in: it must be installed on a particular place in your disk and in a particular way. The old ways of COPY A:*.* C: don't work anymore for 32-bit software installation. (Where is that nice Macintosh unified setup routine when you need it most?) Netscape's browser is a very limited user interface, not to mention the brutal syntax and documentation. (What documentation?) So let's tone down that hype please -- when the CEO of a plug-in company has to take me by the hand (actually, by the phone) and lead me through the installation of both Netscape and his software, this industry is not yet ready for prime time.

One side effect is how vendors now are concentrating on producing software that has a browser interface, rather than develop versions for Mac, Windows, OS/2, etc. Now they have two development paths: Win95 and HTML. I guess this is a good thing: check out my browser/GUI page to see some potent examples of everything from routers to printers to yes, 3270 emulators taking root in this product space.

Here the Microsoft vision begins to make sense: put the browser into the file management piece of the OS and then capitalize on all the navigation that Netscape has done. There is a reason why Internet Explorer and Windows Explorer share a common surname: eventually they will no longer be separated at birth and be one and the same. Say Goodnight, Gracie. Netscape becomes the supplier of technologies to those poor OSs that get left behind, such as Mac and Unix. It isn't a bad living, but it ain't worth $6 billion.

Trendlet two: the week that Wall Street found search engines. With IPO fever now lukewarm on the Internet Provider scene (UUnet canceled theirs apres le AT&T Internet deluge), our charming capitalists have figured out that searching for stuff is now hot. Pardon moi, but this too will pass. Granted, searching is important -- nay, essential to the modern surfer. A day doesn't go by where I don't use one search site or another (Lycos and Yahoo are still my favorites, with Altavista close by). But the real challenge is going to be putting Lycos-in-a-drum so that users can either take the Internet with them on the road or else deploy a search engine easily on their own Intranets.

For the former situation, Frontier almost has it right with their Cybersearch CD ROM. However, all they have put in the can is the index: you still need a net connection to get the full articles. For the latter, WebSite's WebFind feature (try it out on my site under one of the search menus) is quick and dirty searching at its best, but there is still way more room to grow here.

Once again, Microsoft could easily nip this searching market in the bud by putting it into their OS: remember how vibrant a market TCP/IP stack vendors once were? Where have all those flowers gone? (Note to Apple: maybe you can pick up some help here on the TCP/IP front.)

And trendlet three: Novell and Java. A discussion that Drew Major and I had in front of about 175 people at Interop turned ugly when almost every question from the audience drew a reply about Java: I guess we know what Drew (the prime mover behind much of NetWare since its beginnings) is working on now. It makes sense for Novell to develop a Java server and Javicize itself: perhaps now we'll get the application server that we really wanted and that only NT can seem to deliver. But it better happen soon, and Novell still has a lot of homework to do.

Is Novell doing Java to just get at Microsoft's goat? Part of me says no, there isn't any hidden gunman behind that grassy knoll. A Java-enabled NetWare server would be a welcome innovation to this market. However, it may not be so welcome news for network managers that just want to see a practical and potent motivation to upgrade to NetWare 4.x and stave off any further NT inroads into their well- known universe of file and print servers. This could be fun to watch.

A final Microsoft tidbit: according to rumors, the Gates Interop keynote was so horrid because a planned satellite uplink didn't happen that morning. I guess Bill's Broadband-R-Us couldn't get here fast enough.

Awards, sitekeeping, and self-promotions department

This week's awards come courtesy of our reader's own recommendations. First the good news: calls itself "Earth's Biggest Bookstore." With 1 million titles on hand that may be a safe claim, but more important than numbers is the fact that Amazon is fast and fun to use. It can answer questions, take you anywhere in its inventory and provide a wealth of information. The capacity of speedy search by author, title, subject or keyword is coupled with low key but effective merchandising. Prices are 30% off best sellers and 10% off on everything else. Amazon is an amazing resource in breadth of offering and for that reason, we offer our appreciation with this week's Big Duck award.

And the bad news: Coral (not to be confused with Corel) Technologies for mis-appropriating Go take a look: "This site will be back closer to Easter." Do they mean 1997? In the meantime, they get a Lost in Web Space award for hogging the domain name!

Keeping up with web server benchmarking? Infoworld has brought out the first true "real client" test of their own (up to 50 clients hitting the same server), take a look at what they've done. (I wrote the introduction to the review, although had nothing to do with the test plan. My own effort for c|net will be out in two weeks, and I have begun to track similar efforts on my benchmarking page.)

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David Strom
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