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
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
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.”
- 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
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
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
Microsoft hasn’t given up though.
You can develop ASP .NET applications for free using its
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
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
And if Apple ever releases a version of its Intel OS X
for a standard PC, I would be very tempted to make the
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
recently come across another RSS reader (which was
not featured in the Bitwise review) called Omea
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!
Omea Reader - a truly
impressive Internet browsing tool for RSS, newsgroups
Oh, and finally, I wish a Merry Christmas to all my readers...
a Happy New Woof to your dogs!