Since Microsoft launched its Windows 95 last summer, about 20 million computer owners have moved over to the new operating system. But perhaps three times that many people have delayed: They see no compelling reason to change. Now, the software giant thinks that it has the killer application that will drive upgrades, especially in business. The development is a Windows update called Nashville, which will bring the Internet directly to your desktop.
Just what does that mean? For one thing, the World Wide Web browser may disappear as a separate piece of software. Instead, a new version of the Windows Explorer, which I have seen demonstrated, will allow you to browse your own computer, a local area network, or the Internet using the same screens and the same menu commands.
BIG BILLS? Click on a Microsoft Word document at a Web site, and it will come up in Word on your screen. On your hard drive, click on a document written in HTML, the language of the Web, and you'll think you're out on the Net. "You will have one environment for exploring all the information you want," says Brad A. Silverberg, who heads Microsoft's new Internet Div.
This opens up a world of possibilities to software developers--and can also lead to impressive bills for your Internet connect time. While you're hooked up to the Net, Starwave's sports ticker (http://espnet.sportszone.com), which runs in a Netscape Navigator window, could become part of your desktop. Or PointCast's news, weather, and stock-quote service (http://www.pointcast.com), which currently acts as a screen saver, could be the "wallpaper" screen background instead.
The approach is Microsoft's answer to the stunning recent growth of the Web--and to the threat posed by browser-maker Netscape Communications. Netscape and Sun Microsystems have argued that programs written in the Java language, which will run on different computers, could eliminate the need for Windows. Microsoft wants Windows to eliminate the need for browsers. Microsoft has the advantage here. Sun must develop new chips and new operating software: Nashville relies on the network support that's already built into Win 95 and NT. (Macintosh users will get a similar measure of integration with a technology called Cyberdog in the next version of Mac OS, which Apple Computer promises to ship by yearend.)
WIN-WIN. Microsoft has yet to name its Windows upgrade, which is due out this summer. The company hasn't even decided whether to give it away, like the Internet Explorer browser, or sell it, like the $45 Win 95 Plus! add-on. Web integration will be most helpful to those with a direct and relatively fast connection to the Internet, so home users may not be able to enjoy the full advantage until technologies such as ISDN or cable Internet connections become common.
In the meantime, the new approach should appeal to corporations, where fast, direct Net connections are widespread. This is the segment that has lagged behind in upgrading from Windows 3.1. And to inspire further corporate adoption, Microsoft plans both Win 95 and Windows NT versions. A preview is due in April with the release of a test version of Internet Explorer 3.0, which incorporates many of the new features.
It still has to overcome Netscape's big lead in browsers, but Microsoft may be in a win-win position. For now, Java and other kinds of net software need the power of Win 95 or NT. So whether you browse Microsoft's way or Netscape's, you won't get the full benefit of the Net with Windows 3.1. The Internet, something of an afterthought for Windows 95, may be the force that makes it indispensable.