Those of us in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., were more than a little worried a couple of weeks back as Hurricane Felix menaced the Middle Atlantic coast. So I got some measure of comfort by clicking an icon on my computer desktop every now and then to effortlessly get the latest update from the National Weather Service as I went about my work. Such quick and easy access to information on demand got me to thinking about networking, the next frontier in computing for companies and individuals. And what I see is a fierce battle shaping up in the software industry, an indication that we are likely to see dramatic improvements in computer networking very soon.

The promise of networking is great. There is far too much power in today's personal computers to stay locked up in a box on our desktops. We need software that lets us reach out to collaborate with co-workers, that gives us instant access to information around the world, that allows us to manage such mundane tasks as controlling the air-conditioning and security systems in our homes.

FRESH DEFINITION. The networks of the not-very-distant future will provide an instant transfer of information, and your computer will finally fade into the background as a tool. The distinction between data on your computer and data on the network will disappear. "The definition of networks is changing from connecting computers to connecting people," says Novell Inc. Chief Executive Robert J. Frankenberg. "It's a time of great promise and great peril" for the industry.

The situation is in sharp contrast with the history of the computer operating system, where the evolution from clunky DOS commands to Microsoft's Windows 95 was painfully slow. Microsoft, which was handed a virtual monopoly in PC operating systems by IBM 14 years ago, is starting out well behind in the networking race. Novell has far greater network experience and better software. IBM and AT&T have deep pockets and a lot more networking expertise than Microsoft. And a batch of aggressive new competitors, including telephone and cable television companies, want a piece of the action.

The E-mail and groupware we see in companies and the online networks we peruse at home are just a glimpse of what the next generation of connectivity will bring. If you've had the good fortune to work on a system with a fast, direct connection to the Internet, you will understand just how different the experience of instant access is from fetching information using a dial-up service. A high-speed connection helped my watch on Hurricane Felix seem effortless as I sat at my desk. But because I helped design and install the system that made it possible, I knew first-hand about the immense software framework needed to make it work.

Sooner rather than later, such connections will become cheap and available for homes and small businesses. The prerequisite will be digital telephone lines or cable television circuits. But software will have to make the setup vastly easier for people who don't have network administrators.

The uses for the networks will be limited only by imagination. Novell, moving in where Microsoft has already flopped, hopes to extend the network to all sorts of devices. Novell Embedded Systems Technology (NEST) would allow you to find the copier with the shortest wait or check to see if a fax has come in. At home, your heating and cooling system, your security system, even your VCR, would be tied into a network, probably using the existing electrical wiring, and would be controlled by your computer.

Microsoft dreamed of similar networks with its "Windows everywhere" strategy. However, Microsoft At Work, a system for controlling fax machines, copiers, and other office equipment failed dismally because no one wanted to add the hundreds of dollars worth of electronics to enable a fax machine to run the software. The NEST program, by contrast, can be embedded in an inexpensive handful of chips.

TEDIOUS PROCESS. Microsoft knows the future is in networks. An icon called Network Neighborhood is a basic feature of the Windows 95 desktop. The Help menu in Microsoft Works 4.0 includes an item that will automatically dial up the new Microsoft Network (MSN). There you can look for assistance from tech support or other users of the integrated word processor/spreadsheet program. Good idea. But you have to twiddle your thumbs while your modem churns away. And once you get online, you fight your way through a series of screens, each seeming to take minutes to appear. All in all, a frustrating process.

Despite its poor position in networking, I would hardly bet the ranch against the giant of Redmond, a smart and fierce player at the top of its game. However, in the end, it matters little who wins the next round of the software wars if the competition brings rapid progress. And for this, the prospects are bright.

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