Which Windows?

If any of us doubted Microsoft's sincerity about the Internet, last week's news that they were buying Vermeer for a reported $130 million in stock should demonstrate it once and for all. But the real story is how many of us in the computer trades have given up on alternatives to Windows on the desktop, and how the Internet is helping Microsoft play against the Macintosh.

The issue now becomes which Windows should you be recommending for your corporate desktops? And by phrasing the question this way, we eliminate OS/2 and the Mac as contenders. As Information Week mentioned in last week's cover story, it is now a debate over whether to use Win95 now or wait for the next rev of NT. NT cover stories appeared this week in at least five other trade magazines covering new features in the next rev and how corporations are buying into NT big time.

My recommendation: use NT now, don't bother to wait for anything and avoid Win95 if you can.

But NT is RAM hungry, you say. So is Win95. But NT doesn't run all my old 16 bit apps. Neither does Win95. But NT isn't as pretty a face. True, but it works and keeps running. But NT doesn't really fly on laptops. That's true, especially if you are like me and don't like to reboot the machine every time you want to turn it on. Win95 crashes daily for me while NT runs like a rock. And so forth.

The point is that evaluating desktop operating systems is a task that is cumbersome, time-consuming, highly politically-charged, and fraught with land mines along the way. The sorry state of affairs is that Windows (either 95 or NT) has precious few integrated, well-crafted 32 bit applications to motivate anyone to go through all that trouble right now to upgrade a working 3.x machine. And ironically, where these nifty applications do exist (in the worlds of the Mac and OS/2) no one cares to take notice anymore. Take a look at any Windows suite of tools, even those from Big Bill: they are still not hitting on all 32 cylinders, yet. Funny how we get all hot when we find an application that uses long file names, even though this is something that both the Mac and OS/2 have had in their file systems for years.

But back to "which Windows:" The ballgame may be all but over for Mac and OS/2 winning any further mind share, and it has nothing to do with the number of times a Rolling Stones song is sung or how many Star Trek actors are promoting an operating system.

Ironically, as I see the Internet and more specifically the web that has made "which Windows" the new issue. Getting back to our opening thought, far from being behind the curve on the Internet, Microsoft has actually begun to profit from it. Narrowing the desktop debate around Windows makes Microsoft's job a lot easier, since they win no matter what the outcome. For other reasons why the Mac is getting the short end of the Internet stick, see Dale Dougherty's fine essay in this week's Web Review entitled, "Apple on the Eve of Destruction -- The Internet -- not Microsoft -- will kill the Mac."

Why the web? NT makes for a dynamite web server, as I have been finding out over the past month testing a variety of server products. It is easy to set up, even easier to administer. There are tons of new server products being introduced weekly on this operating system, making for a vibrant market.

You can't say all of that about OS/2 or Mac, even though the Mac web servers (both of 'em) have a lot of advantages.

But the big win for NT is something that is more subtle, something that I haven't seen reported in any of the trades: Using native Windows networking tools, I can connect across the Internet to my test NT server 25 miles away in downtown Manhattan (right now it is running Process' Purveyor, but that might change to Website soon). This means that to move files around using the Internet as one big WAN in the sky, I don't need to worry anymore about ftp connections: I just map (or connect) to the shared drive where my files exist on my own desktop. If you have NT or Win95, you probably do this already with shared directories on your local server. So, with a simple copy command (or its equivalent mousing with the Explorer or File Manager) I can move data onto that server. Show this trick to your Unix-centric web users and tell me if this isn't a killer reason why we should buy Win95 or NT.

Microsoft doesn't make this easy or even well-documented to do, but with some pluck you too can make this work. You'll need to add some stuff to a file in your \windows directory (of 95, for NT it is buried a few layers deeper) called LMHOSTS that tells Windows networking the IP address and the NETBIOS computername of the server.

You can do this with Windows for Workgroups too, but only if you are already on a LAN and not easily. And if are trying to make this work over an IP dial-up connection from a non-networked machine, good luck with WfW. I found it easier to upgrade a machine to Win95 than mess with WfW.

The problem with earlier versions of Win3.x has to do with the difference between getting access to network services such as shared files via IP and using IP-native applications such as Web browsers and POP mail clients that already speak the language. Want to know more? I wish I could point you to some stuff that explained it in more detail. Perhaps if any of you have some pointers, I'll post it on my site.

Awards, sitekeeping and shameless self-promotion

Let's get back to the Vermeer purchase for a moment. The day of the announcement, Vermeer's entire web site disappeared and became transformed into a single press release. What a shame. While all the developers are still in the process of packing up and moving to Redmond, their web site already has been cleaned out. For this, Microsoft gets a Lost.In.Web.Space Award: this isn't any way to treat existing Vermeer customers and I think sets a bad precedent for corporate web mergers. Check out our previous awards here.

My essay on the SoftRAM scam, which originally ran as Web Informant #10, is in the latest issue of Web Review. Students of journalism can compare the two.

A speech that I am giving later this week about Intranets and Internet trends and futures can be found here. Let me know if you'd like me to do something similar at your company.

If you are in the New York area, I'll be moderating a panel at the Information Industries Association conference on the Internet on 1 February. The conference is a two-day affair (31 Jan and 1 Feb), my panel includes representatives from Shiva, Vermeer/Microsoft, Wollongong/Attachmate, and Lotus talking about Intranets.

Speaking of speeches, I've got a few fun things planned for the next Interop, which unfortunately falls during Passover at the beginning of April in Vegas. (What a concept.) Drew Major and I will have a fireside chat about what is going at Novell. I am also moderating a debate on the web between Tim Bray and Tim O'Reilly that should be entertaining as well as informative.

If you had any doubts about Intranets taking off, read a Comm Week International story about the latest company to discover them big time: General Electric's Trading Process Network, where it does major- league electronic data interchange using the Internet. And all this from the same company that just sold off its own on-line service business (GEIS). Computerworld this week also did a nice treatment on the subject of Intranets in their feature section. And speaking of Intranets, if you missed the paper I wrote about them last fall, here it is.

I'd also like to welcome my latest sponsor of this site, Attachmate. Long a leader in the 3270 mainframe world, they are getting the Internet religion quickly, with their own collaborative products such as Open Mind and by acquiring the Wollongong Group.

Finally, I wanted to let you know that I've got my ISDN service up and running. I'll tell you more about it as soon as I collect my thoughts.


David Strom

+1 516 944 3407

Link to our web site

Back issues of Web Informant essays