Software's Holy Grail

No-fuss clicking is what consumers need most

It was the vision that launched an empire: "A computer on every desk, and in every home." Two decades after William H. Gates III founded Microsoft Corp., a computer does in fact sit on most office desktops. It is the latter part of the mantra that is proving difficult. Even Windows 95, heavily promoted as a great leap forward in "ease of use," has not provided the magic bullet. The truth is, a personal computer--even the famously "user-friendly" Apple Macintosh--is just too complex for most people to bother with. "It's no surprise that computers are stuck at a relatively small percent of households," says Jakob Nielsen, a distinguished fellow at SunSoft, a division of Sun Microsystems Inc.

There's really only one thing that can change that: better software. Whether it's the PC or one of the new "Web cruisers" that are under development, the information appliance that brings the masses into cyberspace will have to have software that's more intuitive, more forgiving, and a lot better at simplifying the digital experience. "People are still very aware that they are working on a computer, and many people are intimidated by that," says Andrew Sears, an assistant professor at DePaul University's School of Computer Science in Chicago who specializes in software design.

ROAD MAP. The solution, however, may be at hand--or at least the path to a solution. It is the Web-browsing software used to navigate the World Wide Web. The browser filled a simple need: It provided a standard way to view, from any type of computer, information stored on the Web. Anyone with a browser and a modem could reach the thousands of computers on the Web, jumping from one to another by simply clicking a mouse on highlighted words on a Web page. This "hyperlinking" scheme did something more. It took care of the gruesome details, such as typing in the precise address of a particular Web site. Retrieving information--stock quotes, tomorrow's weather, a technical paper published a decade ago, the latest Dilbert cartoon--was suddenly as easy as pushing a button on your TV remote control.

That simple yet powerful idea has done more to revolutionize personal computing than perhaps all of the millions of lines of code written by software makers in the past several years. At light speed, the Web-browser format is becoming the interface not just for Web pages but also for all sorts of information. "The browser metaphor is taking over," says Intel Corp. Chief Executive Andrew S. Grove. "Data will be delivered the same way whether it's on the Net, on your local-area network, or on the disk inside your computer." Microsoft, for example, plans to merge its Internet Explorer browser with Windows to give PC users a single view into the computer and the Net.

The Web format, though, can't immediately bring the millions of consumers still on the sidelines into the Information Age for one important reason. "The vast majority of software we have today is not suitable for this environment," says J. Neil Weintraut, Internet advisory director for Hambrecht & Quist.

So the scramble is on to create a new wave of network-based software and services that will take advantage of the Web and deliver on the vision of the information appliance. The challenge has sparked a surge of innovation and has created fresh opportunities for established software makers and hundreds of startups. "The amount of energy in the software industry in the past year has been absolutely incredible," says Grove.

One of the most promising programs to burst onto the scene is Sun Microsystems' Java, a Web computer language for creating tiny programs called applets. These can be sent over the Net to any computer or device that has special code for executing Java applets. So instead of having to install large, clunky software programs such as spreadsheets, applets will be delivered on demand, as you need them--perfect for small devices or network computers without much disk space.

Java also makes possible new services that could make going online easy enough for the holdouts. For example, BulletProof Corp., a Los Gatos (Calif.) software maker, has used Java to create WallStreetWeb, an interactive financial application that provides stock quotes and charts. All you have to do is punch in a ticker symbol and choose some options from a menu. The Java applet retrieves the stock prices, plots the numbers, and draws the relevant charts--all on the fly. There may soon be thousands of such applets on the Net: Hambrecht & Quist figures that some 100 Java startups have been launched.

The Web, again with a boost from Java, is also getting adept at handling the kind of information that cybernovices are familiar with: radio programs, video clips, even phone calls. Eventually, the Net will be brimming with multimedia information that's accessible from virtually any place where there's an information appliance.

Right now, that vision is clouded by the slowness of the phone lines that reach into most homes. But as the bandwidth increases over the next several years, there is no limit to the information that can be delivered into homes. In the meantime, software makers are getting around the bandwidth bottleneck with "hybrid" programs that deliver most of the code on a CD-ROM, but can fetch updates from the Net. Examples of hybrid content include electronic encyclopedias.

Once the digital deluge begins, the next software challenge will be to help consumers keep their heads above water. "There's a need for a digital shield to get what you want as well as to protect you from waves of E-mail," says Neal Gershenfeld, director of the Things That Think consortium at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. The Media Lab is involved in leading-edge research in the field of "intelligent agents," programs that experts predict will one day handle all our electronic errands and even make routine decisions for us. Some of the lab's projects involve agents that monitor and learn from a user's actions, make suggestions, and even undertake the consumer's haggling in the electronic marketplace.

DIGITAL LEGMEN. These supercapable agents are a long way from practical use. But simple agents are already helping cut through the chaos. If you are a heavy E-mail user, chances are you have used a program to filter your incoming mail by weeding out mass junk mailings and to alert you to priority messages. The latest agents do much more. With a little coaching, these software helpers will go out on the Net and bring back news, stock quotes, or other data of interest to you--so you don't have to waste time searching. An added benefit: Many of the agents will download Web pages--complete with linked pages--to your hard drive. That way, you can browse the information offline, quickly and without racking up charges.

Some of the more advanced agents working the Net now are employed by custom news services. PointCast Inc., a Cupertino (Calif.) startup, uses agent software to deliver constantly updated news and information. Programmed with the preferences of each subscriber, PointCast agents scour selected sites and bring back new developments as soon as they are posted. The service is funded by advertisers. Individual Inc., another news service, has signed up 150,000 paying subscribers. Its software retrieves information from more than 500 sources, based on your profile, and delivers the results via E-mail.

Another way to make cyberspace more alluring to the masses is to give software a more streamlined appearance. The graphical user interface (GUI) made popular by Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh--with the icons, windows, and other now-familiar conventions--was great in 1984. But the GUI model, which worked when PCs had limited power and only juggled a few files or programs, is no longer adequate. "The virtue of the GUI is that everything you need is visible, so it worked brilliantly with the original Mac," says Apple Fellow Donald A. Norman. Today, with vast programs, huge hard drives able to store thousands of separate files, and the Web bringing in pages and pages of information, "making everything visible simply means chaos," says Norman.

Chaos would be death for an information appliance. So smart software designers are taking their cues from gadgets that consumers are already familiar with. For example, millions now routinely use automatic teller machines. An ATM is an information appliance, albeit a limited one. Using the simple menus of ATMs, businesses and government agencies are finding that they can connect just about anybody to their computers to retrieve information. Take the touch-screen kiosks at Trump's Castle Casino Resort in Atlantic City. Tapping a few menu items, customers with house accounts can track winnings--or losses--and tote up the goodies, such as free meals, that they have earned.

The next leap forward for interfaces is 3-D design. Dozens of software makers are developing 3-D environments in which you browse a bookshelf or open a door, rather than scan file lists, to find what you want. One idea: To retrieve information from a Web site, click on a point on the globe, then zoom in until you get the level of detail you're looking for--say, closing prices in Hong Kong. Online services provider CompuServe Inc. last year launched a service called Worlds Away that features landscapes and interiors where subscribers--represented on-screen by characters known as avatars--meet and chat. Microsoft, Time Warner Inc., and others also have online worlds.

NEOPHYTE BACKLASH. Three-dimensional software may be the way to make sure that the Web doesn't end up the victim of its own success. Because you can jump from one Web page to another so easily, within minutes you can become totally lost in cyberspace. When this happens to millions of neophyte Web surfers, predicts SunSoft's Nielsen, there will be a backlash. One possible solution: graphical "maps" of the Web that will help you track your cyberspace route.

There are deeper changes in store, too. Virtually all of the new Net programming, including Java applets, is being built with object technology. Rather than storing information and programming separately, objects link them together. So, instead of simply having a file with your checking account balance, you would have a checking account object that includes all your account data plus the program to balance your checkbook, make deposits, and so on. SunSoft is working on an object-based system for storing and retrieving information and applets as part of a project called the Internet Desktop. The effort is exploring new hardware and software for the Net devices. And Microsoft plans to build objects into a version of Windows NT that the company will begin testing in 1997.

That's forever in Web time. By then, Microsoft could find itself being challenged by any of a hundred upstarts that want to supply software for the information appliance, too. So Microsoft is pouring hundreds of millions into its Web efforts. Whether or not the software giant prevails, the contest to build the software to make the Internet a place for the masses will benefit everybody who uses computers. Says Hambrecht & Quist's Weintraut: "When it comes to Web software, you ain't seen nothin' yet."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.