Microsoft Internet Explorer
Preview of 'IE 4' (TES 1997)
Since the Internet became ALL, the rate at which they update software today is close to frightening. It used to be three years from one version to the next, now people joke that an Internet year - the time between upgrades - is down to six months.
But this isn't about upgrading to keep up, or about the mess this pre-release software did to a machine. It is really about a few dazzling improvements that make computers and the Internet more easy and useful. Microsoft's slogan catches the idea perfectly 'Do more. Work less'. Nice idea, it'll catch on in school.
Microsoft's preview of what'll be on your computer screen the coming months, is called Internet Explorer 4. It is the most noticeable upgrade to Windows 95 yet. Even beginners will appreciate some things - gone for example is the troublesome double-click of the mouse to make it work. Now as you mouse over things on screen they light up while a single click gets them running. And all that hassle over running new programs might end as now, when you click on disks to look inside them, instead of lots of icons called set-up, you might see a page with instructions with buttons to get things happening. This they call the Web view and a teacher could set up a Web view of a computer folder, so that when someone opens it they might find say, a worksheet, documents, or links to resources and programs elsewhere. In short they can customise the system to make just what they need accessible. Not only does the potential seem limitless, but its not hard to do either. The system hand-holds you through making what are essentially Internet pages on your system. You use FrontPad - an Internet, or Web page editor that is included - and it is little different from a word processor.
But this is where computers as we know them stop and the Internet begins. No longer need you launch special software to view web pages since this is now built into the system. If you wish, the whole screen can be a Web page where you can click to go searching for information or documents. You can have as many words, pictures, and useful buttons as can squash on the screen. Schools using networks will be able to send worksheets to screens, scroll today's school news and as they use the system. The opportunities to mess with every aspect of the screen - as bizarre as sending an urgent message to the screen saver seem possible. If you ever felt that a school computer should start up with an invitation to do work, instead of telling pupils where to go look for it, this seems possible too.
For technical support, computer manufacturers will soon be selling systems that aren't just Internet ready, but are able to keep you in touch by offering advice, or an upgrade over the Internet - without having to go asking for it.
And if you want to sell the school screens to advertisers, you can do this too. What has happened recently is a dramatic turn around in the way to use the Internet. Soon, using a trick called push, you will not need to go search for things you are interested in - you can instead get them sent. You set this up by telling Explorer what you're interested in and it will despatch a software robot to go find it. Or you might visit a favourite Web site, and subscribe to it to get news - it could be about new syllabus or even a new kitchen - the idea is that its sent to you when ready. The clue of course is what's driving this is advertising. The useful side-effect is that you'll be able to capture pages on your machine to read at leisure. The downside is that if you go mouse clicking over the Internet, you'll leave enough tracks, or mouse droppings to attract floods of junk mail.
Also now built in to the system is a feature that lets you connect a microphone and a camera and chat live with others. You can even take over their screen, show them how to do things, or discuss a document. Like a lot of ideas here, this one called NetMeeting should work very nicely across school networks and those with fast, dedicated Internet connections. But still there's much here that works with a modem - for example, I had a choppy-sounding chat with someone in the States and saved enough cash to be impressed with. The push idea ought to work with a modem too, although the stuff you are sent or pushed has to sit somewhere on the Internet until you next connect up. Less wonderful today, though slightly promising for education is NetShow which can feed you visuals and sounds. At the moment its another way of sending adverts and entertainment, but canned lessons seem like a possibility too.
There's hope too for those with modems, as the new Internet Explorer can use smaller, faster loading web pages which brim with animation and special effects. What you see is so much more like the things you see in software and CD-Roms - instead of the usual static pages. They call this Dynamic HTML and like Java - another Internet computer language, it is a taste of how educational software could one day be used over the Internet.
Checking the diary, Microsoft's first bash at Internet Explorer appeared two years ago, but this new version, still to get a release date, is radically different. In that time, Microsoft has bashed everything it makes, mice included, into a tool for the Internet. They've bashed at browser competitor Netscape, who Id guess, had better think of something fast. There've bashed out some good things here - even though it's not designed for education, or that the real software - the educational content is still sparse. Looking at it positively, making the Internet better is likely to have a knock on effect on content publishers.
This rough preview software is available from Microsoft over the Internet. If they don't warn enough, it is truly a rubber gloves job and preferably on some other machine. Curiosity really did kill a perfectly good computer. It cost some hours to completely reset my friends machine afterwards. Well, I thought it was worth it.