Vol. 2. No. 4 INT June 1997
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Report from the Trenches

Jim Duber
UC Berkeley

Keeping up with the latest on the Internet presupposes an ongoing battle with hardware and software upgrades. The newer and bigger applications only run on the newer and bigger operating systems, which in turn need more memory to run these great new programs. The programs also happen to require more bandwidth, storage space, system extensions and inits and configurations, not to mention errors and conflicts and freezes and the inevitable crash, . . . or two.

The answer: save more often -- back up more often -- reboot, and, as soon as everything is working just right, it'll be just about time to upgrade again.

I've pretty much accepted all that, and have committed to major hardware upgrades every 3-5 years or so. Word processing software and graphic design software upgrades every 1-2 years. Ditto for authoring software. I'm fine with all that.

Trying to keep up with the latest on the Net is different. It is here where the browser wars rage, where "killer apps" are released as new versions every 3-6 months or so. And here, where several "major" software or hardware-related announcements are made on a daily basis.

As proof, witness below only a few of the major developments that have taken place over the last six months:

It was barely six months ago when Netscape, Inc. released version 3 of their most popular Navigator web browser in their quest to one-up Microsoft, Inc.'s release of their Explorer 3. Now, Netscape has just released their version 4 browser, called "Netscape Communicator" (a behemoth--a full download is over 15 megs, with lots of new and interesting features). My favorite features of this program are the voice mail and shared whiteboard capabilities. The whiteboard allows users to work collaboratively on a sort of digital sketchpad. Not to be outdone, Microsoft has released several minor upgrades to Explorer and is already making lots of hoopla surrounding their imminent release of their Explorer 4.0 upgrade, offering similar features as well as a host of new capabilities.

As for the latest in multimedia on the web, Macromedia recently released two new versions of their popular shockwave plug-in, Shockwave 5 and 6, in parallel with their Director authoring programs version 5 and the newly shipping version 6. These programs bring animation and interactivity to the Web. While Shockwave 5 brought better compression of interactive audio to the net, Director and Shockwave 6 bring the promise of browserless scripting -- in other words, interactive course content can now be delivered over the web without a browser (like Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer). Another promising new feature is the ability to stream media (graphics, sounds, movies, etc.) from anywhere on the net to be incorporated "on the fly" in a Director presentation. While current bandwidth limitations will still limit the amount of material to be incorporated in this way, streaming media will allow developers to present their content with less apparent download wait times while also making it easier to provide multimedia updates to pre-existing content.

Other interesting developments among the "killer apps" of the Net during this period:

RealAudio 2 received a great boost in sound quality with the RealAudio 3 release of not so long ago. And, just last week, RealAudio version 4 came out, which promises better sound quality in addition to the ability to stream postage-stamp-sized video. Although, the video quality leaves much to be desired, this will no doubt improve with the next few releases -- or, in other words, over the next year or so.

In fact, there is a whole slew of new teleconferencing and "internet phone" and chat options and new multimedia apps on the net, and most of these are still in their infancies. Some of the most promising technologies are even finding their ways to the core of the PC operating systems. Take, for example the announcements from Microsoft on their Active Desktop and those by Apple on the new Mac 0S8, both of which will integrate many of the best features of the Internet within the operating system itself.

Development on the Net these days is fast and furious. The downside is that, in many cases, although the newer software versions are more powerful and feature-filled, they are often less stable than their predecessors -- in most instances mainly due to the rush to release updates before the competition.

So, hardware and software manufacturers are battling to control our desktops, while we struggle to save, maintain, upgrade, reboot, and save some more.

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