May 1996


The Internet's World Wide Web gets most of the publicity, but the same software can be used within a business for distributing information. Rather than the Internet, this is an "intranet."

Web software is low in cost and relatively easy to use compared with alternatives like Lotus Notes. You are not tied to a single vendor. The information to be "published" can be prepared with a familiar word processor and converted to the Web's document format, known as HTML.

Or you can use the latest version of Netscape Navigator, a Web browser, which has built-in editing capabilities.


Sometimes you need to go beyond presenting information to people. You may need to collect information and respond to it. For example, large World Wide Web sites often have a search engine, which lets you find the right page of information by typing in a few words describing what you want to see. On an internal Web server, you might want to search for a person to find out their telephone extension.

After you fill out a form, you click on a button to send the information to the Web server. The browser doesn't process the information, it just takes it from the boxes on the form and sends it to the server. The server uses the information to run a program, which creates a page that responds to your request.

Web forms are handled by the Common Gateway Interface (CGI), an Internet standard that can also be used on in-house Web servers. Because the server must run a program to process the contents of a form, forms require custom programming at the server. Nevertheless, Web forms are now in widespread use.


The newest Web trick has the Web server send a program to the Web client, which the client runs. Because different kinds of computers are used as clients (e.g., Macintosh, Windows PC, Sun workstation), and ordinary programs can only run on the one computer for which they were written, you need something special to make this work. That something is the programming language Java, developed by Sun Microsystems.

Java programs can run on any client computer. You need the Java runtime system, which is written specifically for your computer. The runtime system can even be incorporated into your browser. For example, Netscape Navigator for Windows 95 can run Java programs.

What does Java offer? There is a spectrum of possibilities. At the simple end of the spectrum, Web pages can include animation. Steam swirls from the coffee cup used as the symbol of Java. At the complex end, the Web server can send a complete software application to you.


If your PC doesn't need to store applications permanently, perhaps it can be replaced with a $500 Web PC. Such a device would have no disk, just a built-in Web browser with the Java runtime system.

The Web PC has been proposed as a replacement for the home PC. The big advantages are low cost and ease of use. You don't need to install applications, because you get them off the Net. You don't need to worry about hard disk crashes, because your data is stored on a Web server. You don't even need to learn the complexities of Microsoft Windows, because the Web browser replaces the operating system entirely. You can even avoid Intel's near-monopoly on PC processor chips, because the Web PC can use whatever chip is fastest or cheapest. Once the Java runtime system is written for a chip, it will run any Java application.

A serious problem with the idea of a Web PC as a home computer is that you need a fast Internet connection, since it would take too long to send entire Java applications over a modem. The whole scheme can't succeed until fast, inexpensive Internet connections, perhaps over cable, are available at home.


The Web PC might succeed as a workstation in a business environment. Businesses already have a fast data connection to every desktop: the local area network (LAN).

One of the biggest problems in large LANs is the cost of support: keeping all those Windows PCs configured properly. A common complaint is that it is too easy for the user at a PC to do something that prevents an application, or a printer, or a network connection, from working. Often just installing a new application is enough to make a previously-installed application fail.

The Web PC solves this problem, just as terminals attached to mainframes or minicomputers solved the problem in an earlier era. When you need to upgrade software, you make the change in one central location. Every workstation will get the latest version of the application, because it is loaded from the Web server every time it is needed.

The main difficulty with this scenario is that the programs must be written in Java. You cannot yet purchase a word processor, a spreadsheet, or a database written in Java. While you can write new, custom applications in Java, most PC users need to run these "productivity applications" as well.


Here is a quotation from a recent column by Bill Howard:

Will PC-based faxing ever work? Reliably and repeatedly, I mean. When you send a fax from a fax machine, you know it's going to go through. With a PC fax, you have about a 75 percent chance of getting through.
--PC Magazine, 4/23/96

We do not have an answer to this question, but we certainly agree that the problem exists.

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