Rivals Netscape and Microsoft are wooing you with free tools to cultivate the Internet. Jack Kenny reports.
THE BROWSER is as important to the end of the twentieth century as the development of the aeroplane was to the beginning. This is the software that allows us to circumnavigate the information world.
Over the years it has been interesting watching a small company, Netscape, get close to dominating the Internet because of its briliant browser software. Microsoft woke in the nick of time. Now both are engaged in a battle that could damage one of them but, in the short term, benefits education. Amazingly, the high-quality products from both companies are free - to everyone.
The browser software is the master key to the world of information. Browsers enable us to search, to codify what we find, to contact others and to import text, graphics, sounds and movies. Now the range of uses is being extended.
We have seen nothing like this in education: companies actually fighting to put these tools into our hands, asking us to take them, making sure that we cannot move without bumping into them.
Netscape is the company that has always specialised in browsers: Microsoft is the relative newcomer. It is tempting to portray the competition between the two as David (Netscape) versus Goliath (Microsoft). In Internet terms, however, Netscape is the giant - it still has many more browsers installed worldwide. (Microsoft is also having a tiff with the US Justice Department over its allegedly monopolistic business practices).
Recently Netscape's Communicator (Navigator with extras) and Microsoft's Internet Explorer were issued in Version 4. These are no longer just browsers. Both are bloated and have become suites of programs offering browsers, "Web phone" software (international calls at local rates), mail programs, news readers, conferencing, broadcast channels, even Web page designers. You could get the early browsers on to a floppy disc: now you almost need a CD-Rom. You need lots of space on hard disc and memory capacity.
Because of the size of the software it is unlikely that you will want to put boyh on your machine. So which do you choose to spend time, and money, downloading?
Both browsers have telephone software. This is useful if you can exploit it. You need the software, a sound-card in your computer and a microphone - then you can speak to someone on the other side of the world for the cost of a local call. Because you cannot dial a number you have to arrange to be on the Internet at the same time. Conversations tend to be a little like CB radio.
This technology will improve and once you build up contacts with other schools you could do a great deal more than contact them with e-mail.
A common complaint from those who use the Internet is speed. So, is one browser faster than the other? The variables are so great it is difficult to tell. However, independent tests suggest that Internet Explorer is consistently faster.
Net Meeting is part of Internet Explorer and Collabra is part of Com-municator and they have considerable potential for education. They allow you to talk and work collaboratively on screen on a document with someone on another computer who has the same software. Imagine working with a school in Australia on an Excel spreadsheet with their weather data and yours, talking it all through. It is not difficult to see that there could be startling opportunities for learning.
This is not futuristic stuff - it can be done now, probably on your machine.
Both browsers are available for Windows PCs and Apple Macintosh, but school Acorn users can only use them if they have a PC card fitted to their RiscPC. Of course, the Acorn community has its own native browsers and some of these are good (the Ant suite is very popular), but the facilities are always likely to be one step behind. They simply do not have the vast resources of companies such as Microsoft and Netscape.
If you are using a Microsoft operating system it is a logical step to use Internet Explorer, as the latest version is a glimpse into the future. Netscape has a better coverage of all of the platforms except Windows CE. It is not as tightly integrated into the operating system as Internet Explorer is into Windows.
The goal of the Microsoft developers is to make all your work like browsing the Web, so eventually you will hardly be able to tell whether you are on the Web or your own hard disc. Microsoft's Windows 98 will look very like Internet Explorer because Microsoft has glued its browser and its operating system very tightly together. And with Explorer you can browse your folders as you would a Web page.
Both Microsoft and Netscape are working on their next versions of browsers. The competition is intense and out of it will come some even more powerful tools for teachers and students. All we have to do is watch, admire and work out how to make maximum use of all that is made available.
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