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SapphireSteeel Software

 

 

December 2005

 

Snowbound and isolated, Huw waits for the postman in vain while his dog wonders where her next virtual Bonio is coming from…

 

Through the window I can see the bare branches of trees hanging heavy beneath the weight of snow. My dog, Bethan, is delirious with joy. She is just over a year old and it is the first time she’s ever seen snow - not just seen it, but run through it, jumped on it, rolled in it, dug in it, slid on it and eaten it. Watching her, you’d think that snow was the best toy ever invented…

I live in an old stone house at the bottom of wooded valley in a wild, remote area of Devon, way down at the South-western end of England. When I moved here, about eleven years ago, my main lifeline to the outside world was the postman. Without his daily visits, laden down with letters and boxes of software, I would have barely been able to keep in touch with people, let alone conduct my business as a freelance technology journalist.

While the Internet existed in the mid '90s, few people made much use of it. Those of us who went online at all tended to confine ourselves to dedicated bulletin board systems. These were enclosed little communities which you could join by paying a membership fee (or, if you happened to be a computer journalist, by shamelessly blagging a freebie). Bulletin boards contained lots of text messages which you could read or write by entering inscrutable one or two letter commands at a prompt. In short, they were ugly, difficult to use and expensive.

Even so, by comparison with the Internet at large, bulletin board systems were, by the standards of the time, relatively user friendly; navigating the Internet, on the other hand, required a good knowledge of arcane command line and searching tools such as Ping, Archie and Veronica. A reasonable grasp of TCP/IP, FTP, HTTP and Gopher would also have been highly advantageous. To ‘surf’ the Web you had to enter instructions at a command prompt; the remote information (should you ever managed to find any) was displayed in the form of plain scrolling text on screen.

Caught In The Web

In the mid '90s, Mary Branscombe, the then Features Editor of PC Plus magazine, asked me if I’d like to write a regular column about the Internet. I declined on compassionate grounds. But she was insistent. “It’s not as bad as you think,” she said, gently beating me about the head with the business end of her bullwhip (standard issue for feature editors in those days), “There’s this great new thing called Mosaic, you’ll love it.” In the end she persuaded me to try it out for a couple of months. If I really couldn’t take the strain, I could wriggle out of it thereafter with no hard feelings.

“Strain,” did I say? I loved every minute of it. At one instant I was in Switzerland (CERN, the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, being, at that time, a popular ‘jumping off point’ on the Web), the next instant I was in America. Or Australia. Or just about anywhere… I had, quite literally, never seen anything like it. In fact, the ease with which I could jump from one page to another was bewildering. I had to concentrate just to remember which bit of the world I happened to be in at any moment.

This, of course, will not be news to you. You, I have no doubt, already know all about the World Wide Web and how to use it. Otherwise, how would you be here? But it was as new to me then as snow is now to the dog.

It was Mosaic that finally opened up the Web to me. This was an early web browser - the precursor of Netscape and, ultimately, of all other browsers too. Look, there it is in Internet Explore. Select Help, About and it tells you: “Based on NCSA Mosaic.”


Mosaic - gone but not forgotten…

Mosaic showed graphical views of pages rather than the scrolling text I’d seen previously. As soon as I saw Mosaic I knew that it was the start of something big - but I can’t say I honestly guessed how big that something would be, or how quickly it would happen. I certainly didn’t guess that, by the end of 2005, I would be finding information on the Web, shopping on the Web, listening to the radio and watching video on the Web. And I can certainly tell you that it never even occurred to me that I would be publishing this column on the Web.

The only downside is that I don’t see much of the postman these days…

Today The Desktop, Tomorrow...?

Microsoft, bizarrely, has never really managed to come to term with the Web. It’s had a few tries. I recall that MSN, the Microsoft Network, was originally intended to be the ‘portal’ of choice for the Web. It didn’t happen. Then there was the Active Desktop - this would turn Windows into a sort of receiver for information that would be pumped onto the desktop by a variety of online news services. Well, if that ever happened all I can say is I missed it. Then there were ActiveX controls. These were components that would live inside your web pages and bring them to life. OK, so I concede that a few of these have taken off, the most successful (and occasionally irritating) being the Flash animation plugin. However, that was developed by Macromedia, not Microsoft. Then there was VB Script - an alternative to JavaScript and really rather pointless. Now there is the .NET Framework. That lets you program ASP (Active Server Pages) using something called Web Forms - all of which is fine and dandy, just as long as your web site is hosted on Windows which, frankly, it probably isn’t…

Microsoft continues to struggle to make any real impression on the Internet but it is continually trying to catch up rather than taking the lead. While the Active Desktop failed, a different type of syndication, RSS, succeeded. The trouble is, Microsoft applications don’t do RSS. Other web browsers such as Firefox and (better still) Opera, let you subscribe to feeds and read new messages. Internet Explorer 6 doesn’t. While ASP has found a niche on the Web, PHP (free to use and hosted on multiple Operating Systems) has practically taken it over; PHP is now widely used for everything from discussion forums to eCommerce shopping carts.

Microsoft hasn’t given up though. You can develop ASP .NET applications for free using its new Visual Web Developer (trouble is, the Windows hosting required to run them will cost you plenty); it is trying to rival Google with its online searching (though given the poor quality of its desktop search tools - it’s generally simpler to find information from the MSDN help system using Google rather than using the built-in searching - all I can say is they have high hopes); oh, and they’ve finally ‘discovered’ RSS. Internet Explorer 7 will have RSS and so, apparently, will a whole load of other Microsoft applications.

Even so, the Web remains remarkably Microsoft-independent. So much so that, frankly, I now feel more dependent on the Web than on the tools or the operating system required to access it. I really don’t care too much whether or not I use a Microsoft Web browser (in fact, I prefer Opera). I’m not honestly bothered whether or not I use a Microsoft word processor (I still use Word, but I’d be quite happy with Open Office). And if Apple ever releases a version of its Intel OS X for a standard PC, I would be very tempted to make the switch.


NewsInABox 2.0 - now with integrated category management

On the subject of RSS, the NewsInABox development team wrote to tell me recently that they’d responded to my criticisms of their category management in the Bitwise review and have now released a new version that has category management built in. It also has a new layout. This is quite a nice program for people who like to read RSS feeds in a pseudo-newspaper format and might be a good choice for novice users. NewsInABox is free to try or $19.95 to register (and remove ads and graphics).


Omea Reader - a truly impressive Internet browsing tool for RSS, newsgroups and more...

I’ve recently come across another RSS reader (which was not featured in the Bitwise review) called Omea Reader. This is really quite impressive. It has a multi-tabbed, multi-window environment which lets you organize feeds by category in a tree-view; it also groups posts chronologically - today, yesterday, last week and so on; it has integrated web browsing with an easy-select web history to go back to recently viewed pages; it has contact management and a decent searching tool; it even has its own newsgroup reader! Remarkably, it is completely free. There is also a Pro version which includes email, desktop searching, a task manager and more for $49. Great stuff!

Oh, and finally, I wish a Merry Christmas to all my readers...

...and a Happy New Woof to your dogs!

 


Copyright © 2009 Dark Neon Ltd. Not to be reproduced without permission.


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