One of the most interesting features of Windows 98, the planned successor to the Windows 95 operating system, is something called Windows Update. To use it, you click on the Start button, then click on the Update icon. Windows launches Internet Explorer (IE) and connects to a Microsoft Web site. The system checks your computer against a list of available updates, offers suggested downloads needed to keep your software current, and installs the ones you choose.
What's so interesting about that? The idea behind this is not new, after all. Utility programs, such as Symantec's Norton Utilities, CyberMedia's Oil Change, and Quarterdeck's RealHelp, have featured online update services. This year, the leading tax-preparation programs, Intuit Inc.'s TurboTax and Block Financial's TaxCut, added automated downloads of the inevitable bug fixes.
BAFFLEMENT. This feature of Windows 98 is important because it works so well, thereby providing a glimpse of what's at stake for computer users in the wrangling that is going on between the Justice Dept. and Microsoft Corp. Existing auto-update features have worked badly in the past, often failing to connect and leaving only baffling error messages by way of explanation. It's not so much that the programs themselves are faulty. The problem is that Internet connections were something of an afterthought in the design of Windows 95. Nothing is standardized, and what works on one computer may fail on another.
Windows 98, which I have been using in a test version that's probably quite close to the product that will be released, goes a long way toward solving the problem. My experience with the updates and other software prompts me to come down on Microsoft's side in the arguments in Washington and within the software industry. Connections to the Internet, including Web browsing, have become such an essential part of computing for many users that they should be part of the operating system.
The legal dispute over the bundling of the browser with Win95 has been unenlightening. Microsoft has failed to explain, either to the court or to the public, some fundamental differences between Internet Explorer, especially the IE 4.0 version used with Win98, and Netscape Communications Corp.'s rival Navigator. I see the Netscape browser as an application, much like Microsoft Word or Intuit Quicken. IE, by contrast, is a collection of functions, or services, that programmers can incorporate into their own applications, whether just to provide access to the Internet or make their programs more useful.
For example, the latest version of Lotus Notes uses a customized version of Internet Explorer that has the distinctive screen design and color scheme of Notes, rather than the Windows-y look of IE. Bigfoot's NeoPlanet (see a demo at www.neoplanet.com) is a rewritten version of IE that builds an extensive directory of Web sites right into to the browser. The upcoming MGI PhotoSuite 2, an image-editing program, is built entirely within IE 4.0. It doesn't look like a browser but it lets you grab pictures from files, digital cameras, or Web-based sources such as Kodak Picture Network with equal ease.
Win98 looks a lot like Win95 looks after IE 4.0 is installed, but browsing features are linked much more tightly to the operating system. In most cases, that enables them to work more smoothly. It can sometimes be difficult to tell whether you are looking at a file on your hard drive or one loaded from the Internet, whether it's a Web page, an Excel spreadsheet, or a group calendar.
ROUGH SWITCH. For most users, the need to dial up to connect to the Internet means that switching between local files and the Web can't really be seamless. Web integration will become much more useful at home when more people have fast and always-ready Net connections through cable modems or telephone-based digital subscriber lines. But even on dial-up connections, building Internet tools into the operating system means people will see more reliable and predictable performance as programs increasingly link to the Web for data, audio and video, and on-line help, as well as software updates.
I don't want to belittle the public policy issues regarding Microsoft's dominance of desktop computing. If the company is using its near monopoly of operating systems to extend its control to the servers that run the Web, or to steer customers to Microsoft-run Web commerce sites, then it should be stopped.
But it's clear to me that the incorporation of browsing and other Internet functions into Windows is a powerful innovation. It may be very inconvenient for Microsoft's competitors, but it's a big gain for consumers, who should be allowed to enjoy the benefits.