Buying into the Microsoft Web®

Well, certainly this week our friends at Microsoft (and Netscape) have been in the news, as the antitrust trial gets underway. Let’s say you, as an IS decision maker concerned about your own job-safety, allow (or mandate) your systems people to construct your internal web-based applications using everything Microsoft. Your web pages are made on NT running IIS with ASP, and use Visual Basic scripts on both browser and server. You write all of this using Visual InterDev as the toolkit, and of course you stick with the Microsoft-flavor dynamic HTML and maybe XML with the Microsoft XMS extensions. Your systems people want to use all the cool ActiveX widgets and some data-mapped form fields at the browser end. So you decide to use only Internet Explorer inside the company as the sole supported browser to view all these pages.

You think: why worry about any standards? It’s an INTRANET! And you want your systems people (and you) to deliver the richest, coolest stuff in the shortest time. Of course! Oh, and maybe you dictated that the Microsoft stuff is the “company standard” in order to reduce acquisition and support costs.

Now think a moment to where you were back in 1982? You probably were running lots of IBM stuff.

One day, your boss (or even the CEO) says: “Connect us with our customers! I want our customers to have access to their order status, account information, and our own contact people. This must go way beyond an online store. We’re going to do one-to-one marketing here, and since we’re already web based, this should be EASY, right?” The CEO might issue similar orders relating to vendors.

Oh no! Your customers have various browsers out there and some of them won’t display the pages your people developed. You issue orders to develop “browser agnostic” web pages. And now those pesky IETF and W3C standards get in the way! Your systems people start gasping for air because it means the loss of some coolness, and worse, some drudge-type work. Or maybe you decide to develop a whole parallel set of pages for outsiders and maintain both. And who’s gonna pay for this?

So you go back to the CEO and ask for more money. He blows his stack and asks why the hell we can’t use what we have! It’s the WEB, for heaven’s sake. “Um… well, it really isn’t the web, boss, it’s the Microsoft Web® and it’s … better!” So the CEO relents and makes a mental note of this screwup….

But wait, there’s more! Your systems people have been using InterDev and/or FrontPage and don’t know much about HTML, cascading style sheets, form formatting, table layout etc. They have been isolated from the “ugly, low level” standard languages and technologies and have been using the Microsoft web development tools. Those tools cost a lot of money, but they saved even more in labor, eh? Not any more. Well, for some more money you can use more Microsoft technology to develop browser-agnostic pages. But what does that mean? And who’s going to fix a problem with Opera or Netscape? Someone has to know about those pesky standards and be familiar enough to deal with them. More time, more money. Are you going to go back to the CEO again? Was your “the safe thing is to go with Microsoft” decision really safe?

I haven’t even MENTIONED the issue of portability at the server end. You are of course locked into Microsoft technology in your shop. Yesterdays “IBM shop” is todays “Microsoft Shop”. Remember how hard we tried to keep Compaq from becoming the “approved standard” for PCs in the mid 1980s?

By now you should have a fairly tight feeling in the pit of your stomach. So here it is:

  1. Are you willing to bet that Microsoft is going to corner the Internet worldwide? Will it really be “safe” to go with the Microsoft Web®?
  2. Are you willing to bet that Microsoft won’t drop the hammer and start charging big time for products that today are free or nearly so? If your answers to (1) and (2) are yes, then go for it. Personally, I think history has proven over and over again that once a company has a lock on a market, product quality and innovation decline, and prices rise. Are you going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?

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Executive technology: Smart pagers

Pagers are the most popular wireless communications devices for several reasons: They are very easy to use, their batteries last several weeks, they are light enough to be carried everywhere effortlessly, and they can receive radio signals deep inside office buildings and outside city centers.
The problem is that most pagers only receive information. But so-called smart pagers can transmit information as well as receive it or match the identity of a message sender with your address book. You can still use them as ordinary alphanumeric pagers and receive callback numbers from telephone users. However, by adding some smarts, you make compromises. Batteries last barely a few days, and smart pagers are heavier — and harder — to use.
Figuring out the options isn’t easy. You have to decide whether you plan to roam around the country or stay in your metropolitan area. Each pager has an array of price plans based on message size and quantity. Here’s a sampling of devices and service offerings:PageWriter 2000
Motorola, Inc.
Schaumburg, Ill.
Price: $330
SkyTel Corp.
Jackson, Miss.
(800) 456-3333
Typical monthly usage fee: $50 to $100
Also available on PageNet as a two-way service
If you’re looking for true nationwide roaming with a small device that has reasonable battery life, consider SkyTel’s SkyWriter service using the Motorola, Inc. PageWriter 2000 pager. The pager weighs 7 ounces and has a 10-line screen on the top half of a clamshell-like setup. The keyboard isn’t for touch-typists, but it’s fine for sending one or two sentences.
SkyTel offers nationwide coverage and roaming. However, in my tests I found that some pages took hours to reach me when I roamed far from home. Part of the problem is that PageWriter has two radios: One uses the same network for receiving pagers; the second is used for transmitting messages. Both SkyTel and Paging Network, Inc. are still building their networks to handle the sending side from the pager. PageWriter has an optional Lotus Notes client. You can set up this client to forward only messages from a certain person or ones containing a special phrase or to transmit all of your messages. Using a special cradle, the battery typically needed recharging after four to six days. And the battery gauge on the main menu of the device is somewhat misleading: It could drop from “100%” charged to partially charged almost instantly.
Interactive Pager
BellSouth Wireless Data
Woodbridge, N.J.
(800) 726-3210
Price: $430
Typical monthly usage fee: $35 to $60
BellSouth’s Interactive Pager is three-quarters of an inch taller and several ounces heavier than PageWriter. Its screen is smaller (with only a four-line display) and its menus far more confusing. It also has a smaller coverage area than SkyTel’s service. It comes with two sets of batteries: a rechargeable and two replaceable AA batteries. A charge will last one or two days. The rechargeable battery remains inside the device. The AAs augment this battery and need weekly-or-so replacement. Its keyboard is awkward for typing numbers.
This pager had a few advantages, however. First, it had more reliable transmissions, with no garbled characters either sending or receiving in my tests. The other pagers had trouble with their transmissions. Second, you can send a text message to anyone with an ordinary phone number. The message is transferred to a speech synthesizer and delivered. That’s handy. Finally, it had the quickest delivery of any device. Messages came within minutes.
Synapse Pager Card for PalmPilot
PageMart Wireless, Inc.
(800) 864-4357
Price: $189
Typical monthly usage fee: $45 to $75
Unlike the first two pagers described here, the Synapse is just a one-way device. But it solves two problems. First, for those of you who carry a PalmPilot organizer, it saves space, because the pager is a small circuit card made by Motorola that replaces the memory card of all PalmPilots, other than Version III. Second, if you’ve ever received a page with an unfamiliar phone number, you’ll appreciate that Synapse works with your contact database stored in the Pilot to match the incoming phone number on the page with the corresponding name in your address book. However, I found that unless the phone number was the first series of digits on a page, the software wouldn’t match it with my contact database. Installation was a snap. You replace cards and reset your Pilot and resynchronize your data from a PC.
There were disadvantages. First, roaming is nationwide but not effortless. You need to make a phone call to PageMart’s service bureau and enter the area code of your new location. Second, this pager had the most trouble with garbled and missed messages. When that happens, you can call PageMart and have the messages read to you.P
Strom is a freelance reviewer in Port Washington, N.Y.
Analysts such as Darryl Sterling at The Yankee Group estimate that, out of more than 45 million pagers in use today, approximately 61,000 are smart pagers. Sterling predicts the number of smart-pager subscribers will jump to about 8.8 million by 2003.
In the meantime, “People buy pagers for a lot of reasons,” says David Weilmuenster, an independent communications consultant. “They want long battery life so you can forget about worrying when to change your battery. They also want something small, to fit in your pocket.”
Smart pagers will see more innovation, including Windows CE and PalmPilot-style devices with wireless peripherals, and smarter phones from Samsung and others that come with built-in World Wide Web browsers and data services.
Why bother with smart pagers when you could use just a cellular phone? There are several reasons:
If you need up-to-the-minute contact with your staff and E-mail is a preferred means of communication, you can use these pagers to compose replies. Pagers can also come in handy when sending out alerts from your information systems staff, for example. And if your corporate E-mail system is Notes, then PageWriter — with its optional Notes client — can provide instant notification of incoming messages.

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Secure email is still the pits

The state of secure Internet email standards and products is best described as a sucking chest wound. There are no technologies that are multi-vendor; interoperable; and, approved or endorsed by the Internet’s standardization body.

That’s the sad state of reality today. I’ve been working with several of the most current products lately, and after testing them I felt like I had to go home and take a long hot shower and cleanse myself of an imagined putrid odor. Why are things so grim?

You can read the short version of the essay here, or a longer excerpt from my book on “Internet Messaging”.

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You’ve got mail!

Well, that is what Marshall and I wanted to call our book on Internet email when we wrote it back in the salad days of 1998. It was just before the Meg Ryan movie came out and would have been perfect. Instead, we were stuck with a crummy title and lackluster sales. Marshall, for those of you that don’t know, was one of the inventors of the POP protocol, so you can blame him for all that spam you now get. Well, who knew?

In any event, Penn Jilette (of Penn and Teller fame) wrote our foward.

You can order the book from Amazon here and there is more information on my site if you want to read a sample chapter.

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Building your on-line storefront (Infoworld, 1997)

Back in the late 1990s, I wrote a lot of product reviews for Infoworld, which was a force of the computing world back then. Here is a piece where I looked at the various eCommerce tools that were available. At that time, I taught various full-day workshops on eCommerce at Interop shows around the world.

Setting up your own web storefront isn’t for the timid. You have major decisions to make, such as the type of tools to use and approach to take. And then there is the issue of where to locate your web — either on your own premises or at some hosting provider.

The biggest decision, though, is which of four possible paths to take before you put one product on display or write a page of HTML. You can build a store by either joining an eMall, outsource the store to some Internet Service Provider (ISP), buy a suite of software, or build it yourself from a bunch of different software products.

The eMall is perhaps the simplest approach: you can get started quickly, as most eMalls already have in place the tools required to post the pages, handle payments, and send reports. That’s the good news. The bad news is that any storefront at an eMall usually isn’t going to work with your own financial and inventory systems. You are also stuck with the other mall tenants and the overall mall management, just like you would be if you rented space at a physical shopping mall.

A few places to check out include ViaWeb (, where stores can be rented for as little as $100/month; the Internet Mall (, which charges $150 setup fee and $15/month plus a percentage of each transaction; and ShopSite (

Before you join an eMall, ask around and determine what kinds of programmers they have and what they will cost to produce your storefront. Find out what kinds of payment systems they support and how payments will be posted to your merchant bank account, and what kinds of reports will be delivered to you and how often. Finally, get a precise quote on prices and any fees — some charge by the transaction, some by the megabyte of disk storage needed to run your web, and others a combination of both.

If the concept of an eMall isn’t appealing, you might next want to examine outsourcing your store to an ISP. There are many ISPs now getting into the storefront business, and the advantages here are that you have your own domain name and web identity, plus not having to maintain the physical Internet connection and servers. The downside is that again you’ll have a tough time tying in your existing financial and inventory systems to whatever ones are used by the ISP.

Prices for outsourced stores are all over the map. By far the best deal is IBM’s Home Page Creator for small businesses. For $55 a month plus a dollar per each transaction, IBM will host your storefront. The setup fee is $260 (including registering your domain with the InterNIC for $100), and you are limited to a catalog of up to six web pages and 24 items. You must use the merchant bank that comes with the IBM setup. (At press time IBM has plans to announce more costly and more functional service offerings.) More information is available at

Other ISPs offer storefront options, but at much higher prices. For example, Earthlink (at has a hosting solution that for a typical store can cost over $600 in setup fees, and monthly charges of close to $200. This area is changing rapidly, as ISPs compete for your business in the post-$20/month access world. Unfortunately, there is no central repository listing web hosting prices and plans — you just have to check several ISPs and plow through their web sites to find the details. Here are some other links to some of the more established nationwide ISPs that offer small business hosting solutions: PSI (, Mindspring (, and Netcom (

The next level up from outsourcing is to purchase a suite of eCommerce software and set it up yourself. This sounds good in theory, but I’ve found the word suite really doesn’t describe these products: many are nothing more than loose collections of software tools that may not even work well together. There are about six different suppliers of suites, from Microsoft’s Commerce Server to IBM, iCat, Intershop and Open Market. Prices start at $5000 and quickly move to five to ten times that as you add options. There is one notable exception: O’Reilly’s WebSite Professional (shown here) v2 is only $800 and comes with everything you’ll need to setup a simple storefront.

Suites don’t really help you integrate your site into your existing inventory systems. Some don’t even come with any payment system software, or if they do only support one particular method for your storefront. However, the nice thing about the suites is that they all come with sample storefronts so you can get some ideas on what to do in terms of page design and how to structure your own store. Getting the suites set up and working will take anywhere from several days to weeks, depending on how handy you are and how much web and database expertise you have.

If you are strapped for cash and time, I recommend starting with WebSite and seeing what you can do with that software first. You can check out what a sample store looks like at and see what it takes to administer the storefront. Otherwise, IBM’s net.Commerce ( is perhaps the best in the bunch of the suites when it comes to balancing function, features, and price.

The last method is probably where you’ll end up — building your store out of your own bits and pieces of software. This is perhaps the only way to get the kind of store you want, with the options and links into existing systems and various payment schemes. You’ll need to select several different pieces of software, depending on what you want to accomplish and how fancy your store will become.

Start first with your database server. Behind every good web store lies an even better database programmer. If you already have Oracle or Sybase expertise in-house, try to co-opt this talent and build your store from this base. If not, then get a copy of Microsoft SQL Server and start with that.

Next you’ll want to setup your secure web server, and establish a merchant banking account that can accept Internet payments. A good place to read up on this is at It doesn’t really matter which web server you end up with here — most of the popular ones will work just fine. The key ingredient is that you feel comfortable maintaining the server with your existing staff and skills.

One of the more popular payment software products comes from ICVerify, and works with many web servers. You can download a sample version of the Windows-based software at (it does everything except move the actual funds around).

You’ll then need to set up some kind of catalog of your products to sell, and perhaps a good place to start is a product called WebCatalog from Pacific Coast Software ($2500, You’ll also want to put together your own shopping cart program. This makes it easier for shoppers, who won’t have to fumble when ordering more than one product from your store. A good place to start is the Mercantec SoftCart software ($900,

As you can see, building your own creates quite a long shopping list for software, let alone tying together all the various parts into something coherent. This is still a rapidly changing field, and hopefully building web storefronts won’t be as complex a year from now as the tools and techniques get better.


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Cisco’s Internet Protocol Journal: Problems with secure email

As we spend more and more time using e-mail, most of us eventually find that we need to be able to prove our identity to our correspondents and secure the contents of our messages so that others can’t view them readily. Proving your identity is called authentication. In the physical world, this is accomplished by photo identification, such as a driver’s license, passport, or corporate identity card. When the time comes to prove who you are (for example, before a major purchase), you show your card. Your appearance and signature match the photo and signature on your card, and the purchase is made.

It would be great if we could say that the future for secure e-mail is bright, and that there will be standards in place that will help. However, the state of secure e-mail standards for the Internet is best described as a sucking chest wound.

You can read the entire article, which is excerpted from my and Marshall Rose’s book called Internet Messaging, over here on the Cisco IPJ archives.

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Web Compare

For a while, I was an expert on Web server software. This site, which I sold to MecklerMedia, listed all the various products available at the time in 1996-7. I was responsible for reviewing the products, posting content, and keeping up to date in this market. Of course, you can’t see any evidence of what I did from the dawn of the Web Era, so you will have to take my word for it.

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Intranet Construction Site

Remember how hot Intranets were? CMP did a custom published Web site telling how to build them, and also produced a series of print pubs that went as inserts into some of their IT-related publications. It was a fun assignment, and too bad that no evidence exists today from this project dating back to 1997.

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A look back at our industry in 1986

(This essay was posted on my Web site in September 1996 and reprinted here for reference.)

This issue marks the first anniversary of Web Informant. I thought that it would be a good time to take a look back even further in the past to the fall of 1986. Back then, I began my writing career working for a special supplement to PC Week called Connectivity. At the time, I had left working for Transamerica Occidental Life Insurance Company in downtown Los Angeles, in a 30 person information center. This group was part of their internal IS department to support end-user computing, and I was getting more interested in local area networks, having installed the first one at Transamerica that summer of 1986. I remember working in an Information Center (as we liked to capitalize it). It was a proud profession: there were trade mags, shows and even IBM product lines geared towards us.

First, let’s talk about the Internet. Back then, there were still a small number of different networks that had grown up from various US government-funded projects. A prophetic paper by Dennis Jennings, Larry Landweber and David Farber for Science magazine mentioned how “NSFnet will probably have the most impact on science of all networking activities in the US at this time (February 1986).” NSFnet went on to evolve into the Internet backbone that we have today.

For those of you new to the Internet, as recently as five years ago a private corporation would have had lots of difficulty finding an Internet Service Provider, let alone getting their own .com domain name established. When I began Network Computing magazine in the summer of 1990, we had to piggyback on a university’s email system to get Internet access for our editors! Even as recently as three years ago, there was a single ISP with numbers in my local area code that I could call: now there are over a dozen that I can choose from for Internet access.

Ten years ago, most of the computers on the “Internet” were running proprietary operating systems or Unix. The idea of having a desktop PC running IP was ludicrous. Now it is taken for granted, and comes included with all desktop operating systems.

Mobile PC products certainly have gone through quite an evolution: back ten years ago, I remember my first portable PC was the Radio Shack model 100, a unit I am proud to say I still have somewhere in my office. It had a terrific keyboard, a 1200 (internal) bps modem, and an eight-line by 40 character screen that I used to file my stories for PC Week. Steve Roberts sent me a photo showing him typing on one next to the massive bicycle-cum-office that he rode around America back in 1984. Since then, I think I have used about 20 different laptops to write my articles. My favorite was the NEC Ultralight notebook that I used in 1989 (one photo I have is of me typing away at the hospital shortly after my daughter was born). Unlike my present portable, it was small, light (less than 4 lbs.) and had great battery life.

Roberts’ article mentions the “Plus [automated teller] System promises to make all this [mobility] easy someday, but at the moment [May 1984], its nodes are far more sparsely scattered than are those of CompuServe.” Interesting how both networks have grown over the years, but I think the number of ATMs far exceeds CompuServe nodes at this point. Roberts is now on to outfitting a sailing ship with various computers, by the way.

What computers were we using ten years ago? Well, at Transamerica the most popular device (in terms of numbers, not necessarily in terms of emotions) was still the 3270 terminal — by the time I left in 1986 we almost had 2,000 apiece of PCs and mainframe terminals. The best PC at the time was the 386 with 640 Kilobytes of RAM, introduced by Compaq that fall. However, most of the machines we had at Transamerica were 8088s, with some ATs.

What was the predominant software back then? Why, Lotus 1-2-3 of course. I still have my copy of version 1A, and not too long ago I installed it on a machine and was gratified to see its familiar grid pattern. And also I was gratified to see that I could still remember how to use it.

Back then, a good portion of my end-user support effort was getting the right video drivers (remember Hercules graphics on IBM monochrome monitors?) to work properly. MicroChannel and EISA bus machines had not yet been invented, and Apple had begun selling Macintoshes a few years earlier. Most monitors were woefully small by today’s standards.

Networking was a very different picture back ten years ago. Of course, the biggest networks were still those connecting terminals and PCs with 3270 cards to IBM mainframes. In the fall of 1986 the Manufacturing Automation Protocol was picking up interest (and actually on version 2.1!). A company called Industrial Networking Inc. was formed to sell products from Ungermann-Bass and General Electric, only to fold a year later. UB, by the way, was the first company besides IBM to sell token ring gear that summer. Now the automotive companies (the core group of MAP’s original sponsors) are fully behind IP and the Internet.

Novell and IBM were the predominant LAN software vendors back then — NetWare was one of the first products to take advantage of the protected mode of the 286 processor, something that IBM finally delivered on with OS/2 several years later. Token rings were just 4 megabits, and used passive “MAUs” for hubs that still are around today (mainly because they are one of the few hubs that don’t require any power to operate). 3Com was selling Ethernet cards by the truckload but having a hard time with the original “network computer,” a diskless workstation called the 3Station. Some things never change.

Looking back at PC Week Connectivity (yes, I still have the back issues), I am amused how many of the stories written then still cover many of the same themes we have today. One of my first reviews published for PC Week ran in Jan 1987 about Attachmate’s 3270 emulation products. At the time Attachmate was a brand-new company, and I stated “No matter how good the Attachmate product is, it will be tough to gain market share over DCA and IBM.” Since then the company bought DCA and IBM has played a lesser role with 3270 products. Oh well, can’t always call ’em.

The December 1986 PC Week had some interesting prices: 2400 bps internal modems from Hayes were selling at close to $800, 80386 PC 18 Mhz clones with 512 k bytes of RAM were going for $4500, Microsoft was selling version 1.03 of Windows and version 3.1 of Word, and 3Com’s servers cost $6000 and had whopping 70 megabyte disks!

What was the computer trade publication landscape back then? Well, PC Week, Infoworld and Computerworld were the predominant news weeklies. I re-read the parody issue called ConfuserWorld which was printed in 1983 and contained headlines such as “IBM calls it quits”. The best part of the parody publication were its ads, though: one for a new computer-related TV show called Happy Daze where “the Fonz fixes an HP-4000 by kicking it in the drive unit.” Another ad for Kodex maxi- modems promised that your could “communicate with confidence” on those “special times of the month when communications is at its peak.”

There weren’t any Internet-related publications, and just LAN Times and LAN magazine were devoted to networking topics. Networld and Interop were separate trade shows, and Comdex was still too crazy even then.

We have come a long way in a decade. Thanks for all of you that have sent me documents and anecdotes from that era — I appreciated reading all the responses. It has made for an interesting trip down memory lane.

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Computerworld (1996): The rise of web-based user interfaces

The jury is still out over whether having the web as a universal graphical interface for applications is a step forward or backwards. I started keeping track of the more notable examples on this page of my website (and haven’t touched it in years, sorry.) Clearly it isn’t just another pretty interface for all your applications, as I originally wrote this story for Computerworld back in June of 1996.

Some analysts aren’t thrilled about Web UIs: Alan Cooper, a user interface consultant in Menlo Park, Calif., thinks that “HTML has set computer programming back 30 years and is about the worst technology I’ve laid eyes on.”

Others are more positive: Fred George, who used to work on IBM’s user development for OS/2 and is now an independent consultant based in Boulder, Colo., says he is “glad to see that we have moved beyond the 1960s-era teletype-style user interface,” and has hopes that web technology will eventually catch up with the operating system graphical interfaces. And software developer Bruce Fram who runs his own Silicon Valley company called Relations Software, says “Web technology is the information mechanism of the 90’s. Application developers who are not using it as their primary end-user interface will be in the same position as scribes after the invention of the printing press.”

Just about every software category now has at least one instance of where a vendor has taken to the web: you can access calendars, groupware, email, and even 3270 terminal emulators via an ordinary web browser. And plenty of hardware products, including printers and routers, now come with their own built-in web server for management purposes.

There is an important cross-platform advantage for having web interfaces: software vendors can cancel their Mac and Unix development efforts and concentrate on figuring out new ways to shoehorn functions into HTML tags. And there is always the hope that webification will simplify training users on how to do things, since they just point at a link and click away rather than have to learn a new command syntax.

“Writing HTML interfaces means that software developers tend to develop to the lowest common denominator,” says Elizabeth Rosenzweig, a usability manager with Kodak’s Boston Development Center in Lowell Mass. That could be trouble, although certainly any graphical interface is better than the cryptic telnet command-line interfaces used to manage routers and other hardware devices.

The software side of things is harder to judge. Some products make a great deal of sense to webify: take network-based calendars, for example. B.W. (Before the web), you had to go through a messy synchronization step just moments before catching your flight out of town. Now one can leave the data on their servers and view it with their browsers, and more importantly, actually have a chance at keeping their calendars updated.

So the web has shifted the debate from whether Win16 or Win32s is the best programming interface — now we can argue whether HTML extensions from Netscape or Microsoft are better. Much more understandable by the common user, and much more fun to watch. But having all software go to the web user interface might hasten having an all-Windows world: since multi-platform apps can be supported by back-door HTML, developers have moved away from Everything Else and concentrated on Everything Windows.




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