A year after kicking off its Internet strategy, Microsoft Corp. is entering its next phase with a focus on content "pushing" and collaboration over the World Wide Web.
Microsoft is building client and server APIs to give developers a consistent way to enable browsers--and applications--to proactively push content over the Web or receive it.
"Everyone's trying to figure out how to integrate streaming content, news and alerts, making it useful but not overly intrusive," said John Ludwig, vice president of Microsoft's Internet Client and Collaboration Division, in Redmond, Wash. "I want the user to get content all the time, but not be distracted by it."
An application that supports the new APIs, such as an Excel spreadsheet, could automatically be updated over an intranet, or it could push information out to update a database, for example.
Competing products approach information pushing somewhat differently. Netscape Communications Corp.'s forthcoming Constellation client flows all information through the user interface instead of individual applications; Marimba Inc.'s Castanet is a distributed application framework that could eventually support Microsoft's technologies.
The Microsoft client APIs will be available with the release of Internet Explorer 4.0, which is now due in mid-1997. Applications in the Office suite are expected to support the APIs later next year, officials said.
On the server side, Version 3.0 of IIS (Internet Information Server), which Microsoft will release this week, supports scriptable server components--known as Active Server Pages--that let developers customize how the information flows from the database to the client.
The next version of Microsoft's Exchange groupware, due in the first quarter of next year, will bundle some of these server components to translate information from the groupware stores into HTML.
Companies reviewing their intranet plans for next year say Microsoft's approach could answer several questions.
"One of the key things our users want is a better way to get at databases and financial systems," said Edmund Yee, manager for network operations at Chevron Canada, in Vancouver, British Columbia. "We're looking at a push model to do that."
If Microsoft follows open standards with its APIs, the ability to create a "push and pull" system will have great use in the enterprise, said Rowan Snyder, a partner and chief technology officer at New York-based Coopers & Lybrand LLP.
"It enables the Internet to be more symmetrical in nature, which is key toward making it a replacement for WANs and enabling distributed computing," Snyder said.
While the content and collaboration technology are forward-looking initiatives for Microsoft, the company also has to do some cleaning up on its current initiatives.
Since formally launching its Internet strategy last Dec. 7, Microsoft has repeatedly demonstrated Active Desktop, which merges Internet Explorer and the System Explorer and makes the desktop itself a browser. But it has yet to deliver the technology, which was originally due this fall as part of Internet Explorer 4.0.
"We did a lot of stuff in 1996 that we had to, but we didn't put as much into Active Desktop as we wanted to," said Ludwig. "IE 3 pulled some attention away."
Alpha versions of Active Desktop failed regularly, and current versions take up too much memory--as much as 10M bytes of RAM, testers said.
Microsoft has been more successful on other fronts outlined last December. It has shifted its Microsoft Network proprietary online service to the Web, integrated HTML into its Office suite, changed its directory strategy to support Internet protocols and pushed IIS to the forefront as an Internet server.