Law Office Computing™ December 1997 Winton Woods
Is Bill Gates your Pal?
A few months ago I read a comment by a well-known computer journalist suggesting that Microsoft today is very much like General Motors was in the 1950s. Those of you who were around then remember the huge automobiles with tail fins and chrome bumpers the size of a tractor blade manufactured by General Motors. In 1955 the first Volkswagen Beatles hit the American market and changed American automotive history. They were small and sleek, very inexpensive, easy to use, and totally reliable. The modern day comparison is obvious. The claim is that network computers and other software innovations are being thwarted by the 800 lb. guerrilla that is Microsoft. Microsoft is a lumbering monopoly, so the allegation goes and Bill Gates is the devil incarnate. The Department of Justice has decided to take a stand with Microsoft's critics and so they have attacked the natural monopoly of Windows in a recent lawsuit that has gotten much publicity. The core allegation of a lawsuit is that Microsoft ties its Explorer Internet browser product to Windows in an illegal way. The claim is not really new. Everybody understands that Microsoft has a natural, not illegal, monopoly in desktop operating systems. The issue is how they use that power. Some years ago Microsoft and the Department of Justice entered into a consent decree in which they agreed that Microsoft would have the right to continue to introduce new products that were an integral part of the Windows interface but would not require computer manufacturers to install their separate, not "integral" products. The issue here is whether the Internet browser Internet Explorer 4.0 is an integral part of the Windows operating system. There will be much written about this issue but let me be one of the first to say that Explorer 4.0 is an integral part of the current Windows 95 operating system. Internet Explorer 4.0 also makes important and significant changes in the Windows 95 operating system designed to transition us to Windows 98. The changes fall into three areas: 1) the changes to Windows Explorer, the file management component; 2) the changes to the Windows Desktop, or main screen; and 3) changes to Internet Explorer, the web browser. The changes in the first two categories are huge and notwithstanding the Wall Street Journal's negative comment, they dramatically increase the functionality of the system. The changes to Internet Explorer are important but not nearly as significant as the first two. Microsoft's mistake was labeling this product as web browser instead of a modification to the Windows 95 system. Had they called it "Windows 95 Update" or something to that effect it is doubtful that anybody would have complained.
Before we proceed further, I should note that Internet Explorer 4.0 is free and can be downloaded from the Microsoft Web Site(http://microsoft.com/ie/). When Explorer 4.0 is installed on your desktop you will immediately see some big changes. The first is what is called the "Active Desktop" which is designed to give you direct access to the World Wide Web from your normal desktop screen. In order to have that functionality, however, you need a permanent open connection to the Internet and for most of us that will not occur for some time. As costs for direct connection to the Internet drop, more and more of us will use the Active Desktop features, but for now I suggest you turn them off by right clicking on the Desktop background and deselecting Active Desktop. The other big change you will notice is at the bottom of your screen where you will see some of your desktop icons displayed on a bar. The bar is called the Quick Launch bar and it will have some but not all of your desktop icons displayed. You can drag other frequently used applications on to the bar. And yes, General Reno, the Internet Explorer icon is there, automatically! But it is a small part of the total package because hidden beneath the surface of the desktop is the capacity for further customization of Windows 95. Here some really radical change is possible.
One to the difficulties with running Windows 95 on a machine with lots of RAM is the fact that the number of programs that you multitask on a regular basis increases. Explorer 4.0 dramatically expands multitasking by providing multiple ways of accessing your applications. First, you can minimize and expand applications from the traditional tool bar. A greyed out radio button indicates the application is minimized and the lighter button shows it is active. By clicking once on the button you can expand or minimize the application from the tool bar without having use the miniature minus sign up in the right corner of your application. What is more important, the Quick Launch bar contains an icon that looks like a yellow pencil drawing on a pad. One click of that icon will minimize all of the applications you have running and return you to your full desktop screen. You can control the contents of the Quick Launch Bar by dragging icons from the Desktop to it. You control the appearance of the icons by right clicking on the Quick Launch Bar and selected the characteristics you want. The Quick Launch bar is always there no matter what application or applications you may be in. Once you get used to these two changes in the functionality of the Desktop, multitasking of applications is enormously easier. If you are using Office 97, this functionality is very significant, but all other applications can now be run from the Quick Launch Bar or the traditional radio buttons. Since we often need to initiate an application that is not running these two changes are really significant. The standard practice with the previous version of Windows 95 was to minimize everything on your screen in order to get back to your Desktop. Some times the minus sign would be hidden or hard to find and it was in all events, time consuming. Now with a single click you can go back to the desktop and keep all of your applications active. One quirk of note: for reasons not know to this mortal, sometimes the icons on the Quick Launch bar mysteriously change to things you know not. The application invoked by the icon on the bar is the same, but the icon is totally different and usually unknown. To correct this rather bizarre occurrence, right click on the bar and select Refresh. All of your icons will return to normal and you can return to work.
Windows Explorer 4.0 also makes substantial changes in the way you manage your files. A series of radio buttons across the top of the Windows Explorer screen provide you with access to most file management functions with a single mouse click. Standard file management operations such as cut and paste, delete and file properties are all accessible by radio buttons. There is an address box in the upper left hand corner of the screen that allows you to select your drives or go directly to the network or the Internet. Finally you can map a network drive directly from Explorer with a single mouse click. The other changes in this integral part of Windows are many and beyond the scope of a short column.
Finally we get to Internet Explorer 4.0-- a fine browser application but really just another skirmish in the Browser Wars. As the interest in the Internet, intranets and extranets grows we see each few months a new and more powerful application designed to access both the Internet and intranets. Internet Explorer 4.0 and Netscape Navigator 4.0 are the main combatants, but as interest in intranets grows by leaps and bounds we will see other companies enter the fray. I believe we are the beneficiaries of that combat, not the victims. The browser technology battles do not yet have much to do with the way we actually use our computers in our day to day work and will not until we are always on line. For many purposes Netscape is a superior product and for others I prefer Internet Explorer, so I keep them both active on my Quick Launch Bar. Indeed, because of the changes in Desktop functionality I noted above, I can keep them both active at the same time and I often do. If this is illegal monopolization, I miss the point!