I discovered the World Wide Web in its infancy, three years ago or so, and the first browser I used was a simple thing called Lynx. All Lynx did was display text, and I could zoom around the Web by clicking on underlined hyperlinks. We've come a long way to the Netscape Navigators and Microsoft Internet Explorers of today, huge and complex programs that play music, show movies, and, yes, display text.
Browsers have been able to acquire these abilities largely because they were designed to use other programs to do part of the work. First there were "helper applications," then "plug-ins," and now "ActiveX controls." The technical differences among these free-for-the-downloading pieces of software don't matter much to users, and people tend to refer to all of them as "plug-ins."
PRETTY PAGES. Here's a look at some worthwhile plug-ins. But first, how do you know if you need a plug-in, and how do you get one? The answer depends on the browser you're using. If you click on a link to, say, a RealAudio broadcast in Netscape Navigator and don't have a RealAudio player, the browser will give you a link to a site that offers the software for download and instructions for installation. Internet Explorer 3.0 automates this multistep process, stopping only to ask if you want to install the plug-in. Most plug-ins come in versions for all computers and operating systems.
Acrobat Reader from Adobe Systems Inc. (www. adobe.com) is one plug-in I find indispensable. Web pages usually look terrible when they're printed, so many Web sites offer important documents, such as product description sheets or technical papers, in Acrobat format. With the proper plug-in, you can view the pages in your browser--and get professional-quality printouts.
Other plug-ins are a lot more fun. RealAudio from Progressive Networks (www. realaudio.com) lets you listen to an audio file as it is being downloaded rather than wait until it's stored on your computer. This allows Internet broadcast of a press conference or a ball game. A connection as slow as 14.4 kilobits per second gives acceptable, if somewhat choppy, sound; 28.8 is a lot better. Version 3.0 of the player, now in final testing, promises much-improved sound quality, though RealAudio does not get much better than AM radio.
The ShockWave player lets you view multimedia animations created with Macromedia Director. This is a favorite tool of Webmasters seeking to liven their pages, and ShockWave animations are fun and sometimes even informative. Check out www. macromedia.com and www. realaudio.com for links to dozens of sites that show off the plug-ins.
VIRUS ALERT. In the movie vein, Apple Computer Inc.'s QuickTime plug-in (quicktime. apple.com) has become the Web standard for displaying downloaded clips for both Windows and Macintosh.
The Web's next frontier is 3-D virtual reality. Slow networks and a lack of standards have meant that most efforts are little more than technology demonstrations, but they're worth a look nevertheless. Netscape users should check out Live3D, at home.netscape.com. And anyone running Windows 95 or NT with either browser might try Microsoft's Surround Video, at carpoint.msn.com.
One word of warning about plug-ins: You risk viruses and other problems whenever you run downloaded software. Internet Explorer includes a feature that certifies that the software you download really is coming from Adobe (or whomever), but it cannot guarantee that it's virus-free. Your best insurance for that is good antivirus software.
With that caution in mind, go ahead and explore. Some plug-ins are must-haves, others are just fun. Together, they are daily expanding the horizons of the Web.