Can a leopard change its spots? It looks like it can. As late as December last year The Richest Man In The World, Microsoft's Bill Gates, was saying no to setting up a special team for the Internet. Microsoft seemed content with dominating the world of computers and leaving the Internet to the new kids on the block. But in January everything changed as the commercial drift on to the Net became irresistible. Top programmers were put in place and Microsoft now looks set to colonise cyberspace.
Earlier this month IT journalists were invited to Microsoft's Seattle base for a briefing on the company's Internet plans. The Richest Man In The World did come within kidnapping distance but he didn't say anything worth repeating in an education newspaper. That was because the chat was all about technology and business (he was announcing version 4 of the Windows NT operating system). And that has always been the big problem for education - picking up tools created for the business community and making them work for education.
Microsoft's latest product, however, will probably manage to please both markets. Internet Explorer 3 (for Windows 95) is "browser" software to surf the Internet. At first sight, it appears to offer more features, greater ease of use and speed improvements when handling information on the notoriously slow World Wide Web, with improved possibilities for interactivity. And just like its main competitor, Netscape, Microsoft is putting Explorer and other products on to the Internet for users to download free of charge. Microsoft is now flexing its considerable technology and marketing muscle in an attempt to leapfrog its rivals.
More importantly, it has released some of its own software code into the public domain for anyone else to use free of charge. Known as ActiveX technology, this makes it easier for Windows developers to exploit their own products on the Internet which, in turn, should lead to more benefits for Windows users.
The Internet workshops also allowed glimpses of Explorer 4 and a possible future Windows. Internet software will be so integrated into the Windows operating system that Windows PC users can look forward to browsing full-time. Even the way they will look at the information on their own computers - on their hard drives and floppy drives - will be virtually identical to how they surf the Net. Computers will be browsed just like pages on the World Wide Web. And the two environments can merge. You could be writing with your word processor while a window elsewhere on your screen brings a live news feed directly from the Internet.
After ignoring the Internet for too long, Microsoft has come up with its own philosophy - some would say a battle plan - for developing the global networks for both business and lay users. Schools can now expect to find browsing the Net, communicating by e-mail and publishing their own work on Web pages much easier. It's rather like the moment when word processors became accessible to ordinary mortals, without the need to enter weird codes just to set text in bold for example. And it all makes Microsoft's current offer to UK schools of free connection to the Microsoft Network (and the Internet), along with a lot of free software, even more attractive. (It is also running a cut-price promotion on Windows 95.) From the executives giving the software demonstrations in Seattle, it appeared that Microsoft had undergone some kind of palace revolution. The buzz words were "cool", "open systems" and "full support for Apple Macintosh and other platforms" - not terms usually associated with a company which has appeared hell-bent on domination of the world of computers.
But they are also words that will need a lot of proof before Microsoft critics swallow the pudding; for example Explorer for the Mac is still behind Netscape Navigator while many Windows PC users are already switching over to the Microsoft browser. Significantly, Internet providers Demon and BT are adopting Explorer 3 as their standard browser.
But the company might not get it all its own way; battle has only just commenced and other companies have their own attractive products for browsing the Net and creating Web sites. And its rivals at Netscape are bright, imaginative and - at this moment - still ahead on market share. But out on the Net things happen quickly, and Microsoft has immense technology, business and marketing clout. That's how Bill Gates got to be The Richest Man In The World; now perhaps not so much a leopard as a lion, the king of the computer jungle?
Microsoft Web address for downloads of software: http:microsoft.com Microsoft Internet hotline 0345 300125 ext 136