Beware of leaving mouse droppings
Since the Internet became the place to be, the rate at which companies update software has become frightening. It used to be three years from one version to the next, now people joke that an Internet year - the time between upgrades - is down to six months.
But this isn't about upgrading to keep up, or about the mess this pre-release software made of my machine. It is about a few dazzling improvements that make computers and the Internet easier and more useful. Microsoft's slogan catches the idea perfectly - "Do more. Work less". Nice idea; it'll catch on in schools.
Microsoft's preview of what will be on your computer screen over the coming months is called Internet Explorer 4. It is the most noticeable upgrade to Windows 95 yet. Even beginners will appreciate some things. Gone for example is the troublesome double-click of the mouse required to get things going. Now as you mouse over items on screen they light up, then a single click gets them running. And all that hassle over setting up new programs might end: when you click on discs to look inside them, instead of lots of icons called "setup", you might see a page with instructions, along with buttons, to get things happening. This they call the Web view and a teacher could set up a Web view of a computer folder, so that when someone opens it they might find, say, a worksheet, documents, or links to resources and programs elsewhere.
In short, they can customise the system to make just what they need accessible. Not only does the potential seem limitless, but it's not hard to do either. The system hand-holds you through making what are essentially Internet pages on your system. You use FrontPad - an Internet or Web page editor that is included - and it is little different from a word processor. But this is where computers as we know them stop and the Internet begins.
No longer need you launch special software to view Web pages, since this is now built into the system. If you wish, the whole screen can be a Web page where you can click to go searching for information or documents. You can have as many words, pictures, and useful buttons as can squash on to the screen. Schools using networks will be able to send worksheets to screens, and scroll today's school news as they use the system. The opportunities to mess with every aspect of the screen - as bizarre as sending an urgent message to the screen saver - seem possible. If you ever felt that a school computer should start up with an invitation to do work, instead of telling pupils where to look for it, this seems possible, too.
For technical support, computer manufacturers will soon be selling systems that aren't just Internet-ready but are able to keep you in touch by offering advice or an upgrade over the Internet - without you having to ask for it. And if you want to sell the school screens to advertisers, you can do this, too.
What has happened recently is a dramatic turnaround in the way to use the Internet. Soon, using a trick called "push", you will not need to search for things you are interested in - you can, instead, get them sent. You set this up by telling Explorer what you're interested in and it will despatch a software robot to go find it. Or you might visit a favourite Web site and subscribe to it to get news - it could be about a new syllabus or even a new kitchen. The idea is that it is sent to you when ready. Of course, what's driving this is advertising. The useful side-effect is that you'll be able to capture pages on your machine to read at leisure. The downside is that if you go mouse clicking over the Internet, you'll leave enough tracks (mousedroppings?) to attract floods of junk mail.
Also built into the system is a feature that lets you connect a microphone and a camera and chat live with other users. You can even take over their screen, show them how to do things, or discuss a document. Like a lot of ideas here, this one - called NetMeeting - should work nicely across school networks and those with fast, dedicated Internet connections. But still there's much here that works with a modem. For example, I had a choppy-sounding "telephone" chat with someone in the States and saved enough cash to be impressed. The push idea ought to work with a modem, too, although the stuff you are sent or pushed has to sit somewhere on the Internet until you next connect.
Less wonderful today, though slightly promising for education, is NetShow, which can feed you visuals and sounds. At the moment it's another way of sending adverts and entertainment, but canned lessons seem like a possibility.
Another bonus for those with modems is that the new Internet Explorer can use smaller, faster-loading Web pages that brim with animation and special effects. What you see is so much more like the things you see in software and CD-Roms - instead of the usual static pages. They call this Dynamic HTML and, like Java, another Internet computer language, it is a taste of how educational software could one day be used over the Internet.
Checking the diary, Microsoft's first bash at Internet Explorer was two years ago, but this new version - still to get a release date - is radically different. In that time, Microsoft has bashed everything it makes, mice included, into a tool for the Internet - and bashed competitor Netscape Navigator as well.
This rough preview software is available from Microsoft over the Internet. But believe me, it is truly a "rubber gloves" job, so install it on a "non-crucial" machine. Curiosity really did kill a perfectly good computer. And it cost some hours to reset my friend's machine afterwards. But it was worth it.
'Painting with Light', a National Council for Educational Technology video, showcases computer art created in UK mental health centres for its Art, IT and Mental health project (Pounds 6.50 from NCET, Milburn Hill Road, Coventry CV4 7JJ)