Browsers limber up only to clutter your drive, tracking mud

If you like to experiment with Microsoft's Internet Explorer or Netscape
Communications' Navigator, you're familiar with the incredible flexibility of Web browsers
today.


Plug-in modules add even more flexibility, letting you view special files and sometimes
full applications right inside your Web browser. This seems so practical and gee-whiz fun
that most people ignore an important side effect--file management nightmares for your
enterprise.


The problem is twofold. The first part is the incredible clutter created by plug-ins on
client machines, particularly Windows machines. I downloaded a plug-in module recently for
viewing 3-D Web spaces and found that it installed more than 140 tiny files: data files,
.com files and many, many Windows Dynamic Link Library (.dll) files.


I know, a truckload of small files is part of the landscape with any Windows
application. But with several new plug-in modules appearing every week for viewing Java
applications, Virtual Reality Modeling Language scenes and all sorts of proprietary files,
it's not unusual to have a dozen or more plug-ins with a good Web browser.


If every plug-in I try dumps files on my machine, I'm going to end up with a File
Manager tree the size of the Manhattan white pages.


I'd be willing to put up with the clutter if I could trust the associated .dll files to
stay where I put them and continue doing what they're supposed to do. But it seems new
plug-ins often interfere with older ones.


I recently installed a module that promised to interpret both VRML and Java files. Its
auto-install feature bumped out the Java viewer I was using and replaced at least one of
its .dll files. I liked my older Java viewer better, but it no longer auto-launched when I
encountered a Java application. I had to reinstall the original from scratch. Then the new
one stopped working.


If you use several different browsers, be aware that a plug-in that works with one may
install itself as the de facto viewer for certain files.


I had similar problems testing plug-ins on a Power Macintosh, but the modules were
easier to uninstall. Instead of dozens of small files, the Mac browser plug-ins tend to
have one or two larger files that you can just drag into the trash.


Windows 95's uninstall feature is good at clearing out the old plug-in files, but it
doesn't catch everything. My Windows directory grows fatter and fatter each week, and it's
hard to tell if a file named 2X7GLE.dll is from an old plug-in or one I'm still using.


The second part of the problem revolves around tracking things like Microsoft ActiveX
components and Java files across an enterprise. Sun Microsystems pushes Java as a quick
solution for running applications via the Web. But it has no reliable process in place for
tracking, licensing or paying for apps developed in Java.


Government network managers must account for who is using which software in order to
license and support properly. How can they know which Java applets are being used on their
networks if the applets came from some off-site Web server? On a LAN with many active
Internet users, system managers may suddenly find hundreds of stored applets competing for
network bandwidth and processor time.


The fact that Java applets have the potential to bring viruses with them is fodder for
another column.


I'm hearing about government sites that are seriously considering agencywide intranets
to replace their current client-server systems. The intranets would encourage plug-in
technology to let users launch applets and full applications via Web browsers.


Without a better way to manage plug-ins, associated files and the applets they launch,
I don't see how intranets can ever scale up to the enterprise level.


On the trade show circuit this season, I've seen more then one Microsoft ActiveX demo
shut down because a .dll file couldn't be found. That could be an early warning of the
shape of intranets to come.


About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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