Next Microsoft OS has the feel of a browser

The Windows 95 upgrade, known as Windows 97 and expected in 1998, will include a World
Wide Web browser. The company is releasing early code for Windows 97, code-named Memphis,
and Internet Ex-plorer 4.0, code-named Lisa, for developers of products that will run
under Win97.


The GCN Lab got a look at the pre-alpha Memphis version and the first Lisa beta
version. At this point, it is impossible to install them simultaneously and get a true
impression of the coming OS. Based on the separate developer kits, the pair now amount to
a shell on top of an OS-sort of like Windows 3.x on top of MS-DOS 6.x.


The changes to Memphis seem almost cosmetic, though I found it ahighly stable
prerelease OS. Menus no longer pop up or drop down as much as they roll up or spill
down-in other words, they're smoothly animated. That's probably the most noticeable
difference between Windows 95 and Memphis.


Another notable feature is automatic browsing for application and driver updates, much
like CyberMedia Inc.'s Oil Change [GCN, Nov. 18, 1996, Page 32]. Microsoft has
disabled its Web update site, but the feature seemed to work well.


Memphis offers full 32-bit formatting and hard-drive access. Interestingly, the tool to
convert to 32-bit File Allocation Table format is MS-DOS. On launch, the utility warns
that if you reformat, browsing the Memphis hard drive will be impossible even from Windows
NT 4.0 Server.


Microsoft is working to unify its drivers between Memphis and the next-generation
Windows NT Workstation.


Lisa, the beta version of Internet Explorer 4.0, isn't quite as stable as Memphis. Even
so, its changes are more than cosmetic.


The line between browser, file manager, desktop and user interface blurs in Explorer
4.0. Most noticeable are the so-called desktop components or services. Users can subscribe
to some of them for free, and others are premium services. That means they'll cost money,
like premium cable channels.


The components appear in little portals on your desktop interface. There are weather
maps, news and favorite Web sites, all refreshed on your chosen schedule.


Like the push and pull technologies of products such as PointCast Network, the portals
download information from the services to which you subscribe.


They variously rely on ActiveX controls, Java or the Web's Hypertext Markup Language
document format.


Combined, Lisa and Memphis make up what Microsoft calls the Active Desktop. It's
certainly more active than Win95, but users are going to want better control over
appearance, size and other component properties.


Changing a property is far from intuitive. If you right-click a component and select
Properties, you can't adjust the true properties. You must go to the Subscriptions menu,
and even there your power is limited.


Microsoft also needs to make sure components don't highlight every time you pass a
cursor over them or activate at every stray click. What Active Desktop needs is a glass
shield, so you can see what's underneath but still use the stuff on top.


The browser has some smart enhancements. It anticipates what you've started to type and
fills in the rest for you. You keep typing to override or press the return button if
Explorer 4.0 got it right. You can go to the Address field, type a word such as
"microsoft," then press Ctrl and Enter. Explorer 4.0 will add http://www.
before the word and .com after.


Also included is a new Outlook Express Mail and Outlook News application, along with
NetMeeting and other Microsoft online applications.


The file manager looks a lot like a Web page, with a new tool bar at the top. Move your
arrow cursor over a file and it turns into a hand. The filename highlights and underlines
like a link in a Web page. There's no more double-clicking; one click opens a file or
folder.


Even locations on your hard drive are listed as addresses in the tool bar window.


Lisa turns some items, such as the Control Panel, into dynamic HTML pages. When your
cursor passes over an icon, you see a description of what it will do when clicked.


One neat little button opposite the Start button brings the desktop to the foreground.
If you've left something there you need to get to, you need not minimize all open windows.


With this shell overlay, Windows itself seemed a little sluggish and made more disk
accesses. Heavy browsing or subscription use crashed it. The shell altered the Windows 95
Taskbar, cutting off the bottom of open items.


There are supposed to be ways to personalize the Taskbar, but I couldn't find them.
Explorer 4.0 undermined the right-click power of Properties.


You'll need a high-bandwidth or constant Internet link to reap all the benefits of
Active Desktop.


And the package is a bit of a leap from the easier Win95 interface.


At this point, I'd say Microsoft is complicating, not simplifying, life for the user.


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