The battle for the desktop is on again, but this time it has moved into cyberspace. Just when we all thought Micro-soft had fought, and won for-ever, the title of desktop soft-ware king, the Internet came along and brought with it a whole new set of user requirements and competitors.
Microsoft recognised 18 months or so ago that it was important for some of its applications to be able to produce output in the Hypertext Mar-kup Language (HTML) format used for publishing documents on the World Wide Web. But this support was largely limited to something called Internet Assistant for Microsoft Word.
Since that time, demand has grown for the publishing of databases, spreadsheets, interactive tables, presentations, as well as video and audio, on the Web, and a host of startup firms have responded with products that broadly fit the Web authoring tools description.
The most important recent development has been Micro-soft's realisation that it needed to be a big player in this market, or risk eroding its massive market share in the office suite sector.
For this reason, the company recently announced a whole raft of free Office Internet add-ons designed to bridge this gap. First, there is a new version of Internet Assistant for Microsoft Word (Version 2). This imp-roves on previous offerings by supporting the latest Microsoft Internet Explorer HTML tags - such as marquee text, inline video and background sound - and converts graphics into the GIF graphics file format commonly used on the Web.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Microsoft has rel-eased an Internet Assistant for Microsoft Excel that helps convert spreadsheet data into HTML format, as well as Int-ernet Assistant for Microsoft Powerpoint, for convert presentations from slides into HTML files.
But Microsoft's biggest Web authoring push these days, comes with the release of the Microsoft-branded version of Frontpage, the Web document creation package it acquired along with Vermeer Technol-ogies. 'Millions of productivity applications users want an eas-ier way to participate in the excitement and enhanced productivity of the Web,' observed Microsoft chairman and CEO Bill Gates when his company acquired Vermeer. 'Vermeer's Frontpage fills the wide gap between simple HTML page editors and high-end, professional Web publishing systems available today.' The vital role Microsoft sees for this sector was underlined by Chris Peters appointment as head of the Frontpage team. Until that time, Peters was VP of the Office product unit overseeing the design and development of Microsoft Office. A 14-year veteran at the company, Peters was formerly general manager of the Word business unit and led the development of Excel for five years. 'We are incredibly impressed with the talent at Vermeer,' he says.
'They're smart people with great development talent and a deep understanding of what it takes to create high-quality, easy-to-use Web software. We are also excited about how well Frontpage works with our Office applications today and about the possibilities for even more integration in the future.' If Microsoft is jumping into the Web authoring tools market with both feet, Netscape Communications has already made that leap and is plunging toward making yet another significant impact on the market. One of its key offerings is Netscape Navigator Gold, an enhanced version of the Net-scape Navigator 2 browser that includes built-in and simple HTML Web page editing software. It is aimed at both corporate users and small businesses that want to publish Web pages without learning HTML.
Netscape claims Navigator Gold enables every user on a corporate network or Intranet to easily create and access HTML documents for threa-ded discussion groups, email or the Web, 'facilitating communication and collaboration within and beyond the corporation'. The company says home and small business users can access and create home pages, interactive email and news postings all from the Netscape Navigator Gold environment.
Quarterdeck's most hyped Web page creation tool is Web Author 2. It supports HTML version 3 and Netscape formatting extensions, including the creation pages that use col-umns, tables and flow text.
'Web Author 2 empowers users to create home pages for the Web without knowing HTML programming. They can inst-antly convert existing word processing documents into HTML and keep the document intact,' says Emerick Woods, Quarter-deck VP and general manager of the Internet Business Unit.
The firm claims that Web Author's document conversion program can take any Microsoft Word document and convert them to HTML. Documents with tables of contents, annotations, revisions, footnotes and endnotes stay intact, and the conversion program creates links between them.
Quarterdeck also recently announced the shipping of Internetsuite 2, which now comes with the Global Chat utility, which gives users access to the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) real-time chat system. For parents concerned about the adult content of the Internet, Quarter-deck has included a Cybersitter utility which allows them to lock out pornographic materials from Web pages and Use-net newsgroups.
Like most other producers of Netscape-alternative browsers, Quarterdeck has licensed the Realaudio player from Progressive Networks, as well as the Quicktime for Windows from Apple Computer to play motion video, and an Adobe Acrobat PDF file viewer for Quarterdeck Mosaic.
Quarterdeck Mosaic 2 supports additional Netscape and HTML 3 formatting extensions, such as image alignment and tables and Netscape's Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) security protocol. Other features in Internetsuite 2 include modem detection during setup, Mime messaging, a spell checker and a global search system in the Quarterdeck Message Center, a news and mail reader.
Another intriguing player in this growing Web tools market is the Corel Corporation, which acquired the Wordperfect product line from Novell in late January. Corel's latest Internet-related move came with the release at the end of February of Corel Web Data, a 32-bit database publisher for the Internet. Shipping now, Corel Web data is designed to support both Windows 95 and Windows NT operating systems and sells in the US for $149 - although anyone who wants to try it can download it from Corel's home page at http://www.corel.com for a 30-day free evaluation.
'Corel Web Data is an innovative product that is unique in its field,' says Michael Cowpland, president and CEO of Corel Corporation. 'Businesses, SoHo users or individuals can now make their catalogues, mutual fund and stock reports, or company phone lists available on the Web to an unlimited number of people.' Corel promises that users will be able to choose from HTML 3, Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer extensions. Published information will be accurate and up to date through Corel Web Data's support of CGI (Common Gateway Interface). Corel says that the product will support most major formats, including Microsoft Access, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Foxpro, Borland dbase, Borland Paradox, Lotus 123, Oracle and any ODBC compliant SQL data source.
All very interesting, I hear you say, but how the hell do I make any money selling these products? The truth of the matter is that most of the Web authoring tools discussed here are merely means to an end. In the case of Microsoft's offerings, it is a case of trying to buy market share in the Internet sector, while ensuring that no one abandons the Office suite in favour of something that provides better Net support.
The real money to be made for Vars, dealers and developers lies in creating solutions that build on these tools - designing packages, for example, that use the new Web publishing facilities in Microsoft Excel to create an insurance table database that can be stored on a company Intranet.
In other words, Web authoring tools will, for the most part, be a great way of helping to sell something else. They are unlikely to be a huge money-maker on their own, with a few notable exceptions.
The exceptions are higher-end packages such as Adobe Pagemill and the full version of Microsoft Frontpage, which will both allow professionals to create and update complex Web pages quickly. These products will no doubt continue to evolve and to be enhanced. If they do so well enough, they will retain enough added-value to provide a reasonable business for everyone.
Microsoft and Netscape are not only battling for the Web tools market by releasing new products, but also by trying to attract developers to Internet tools conference. Each is hosting a conference this month to try and secure the hearts and minds of the developer community.
The Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (also held in San Francisco) is being hosted in the second week of March. It is subtitled 'Building Internet Applications'. It boasts some 58 vendors showing existing development products that are fully Internet-enabled, as well as sessions on 'how to leverage the Internet components Microsoft ships to 80 million desktops'. High-profile keynotes are also on the schedule from Bill Gates and author Douglas Adams.
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