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Beefing up browsers.

Despite the growing program size of browsers like Netscape's Navigator, there's still a lot they don't do. A whole category of "helper apps and plug-ins" has been created to fill in the gaps. At the other extreme, our code-happy friends at Microsoft and Netscape are promoting the new notion of "browser as network operating system An operating system that is designed for network use. Normally, it is a complete operating system with file, task and job management; however, with some earlier products, it was a separate component that ran under the OS; for example, LAN Server required OS/2, and LANtastic required DOS. " so that you never have to go outside it.

Java and similar tools offer one way to extend the functionality of browsers and Web sites, by letting developers create programs written in the Java language (either as mini-programs--applets--or as lines of Java code included within HTML HTML
 in full HyperText Markup Language

Markup language derived from SGML that is used to prepare hypertext documents. Relatively easy for nonprogrammers to master, HTML is the language used for documents on the World Wide Web.

Java applets run on your computer (assuming your browser supports Java and you haven't disabled this feature). Distribution of Java typically is "just-in-time"--when you encounter a Java-related object, your browser and the server see whether you've already got the required apples, and get it to you if you don't.

But there are many things you want to do from your Web browser The program that serves as your front end to the Web on the Internet. In order to view a site, you type its address (URL) into the browser's Location field; for example,, and the home page of that site is downloaded to you.  which aren't part of the built-in features, notably render and display data other than the few formats they can automatically handle, namely hyper text markup language markup language

Standard text-encoding system consisting of a set of symbols inserted in a text document to control its structure, formatting, or the relationship among its parts. The most widely used markup languages are SGML, HTML, and XML.
 files (ASCII text Alphanumeric characters that are not in any proprietary file format. See ASCII file.  with HTML format codes), GIF GIF
 in full Graphics Interchange Format

Standard computer file format for graphic images. GIF files use data compression to reduce the file size. The original version of the format was developed by CompuServe in 1987.
 images, and possibly sound clips and JPG See JPEG.

jpg - JPEG

Web sites can contain movie files, streaming audio/video, Microsoft Word A full-featured word processing program for Windows and the Macintosh from Microsoft. Included in the Microsoft application suite, it is a sophisticated program with rudimentary desktop publishing capabilities that has become the most widely used word processing application on the market.  or PowerPoint documents, documents in CorelDraw, Shockwave Director, Adobe Acrobat Document exchange software from Adobe that allows documents to be displayed and printed the same on every computer. The Acrobat system created the Portable Document Format (PDF), which is widely used in commercial printing and on the Web. See PDF. , and others. Web addresses often point to other server types, such as file transfer protocol A communications protocol used to transmit files without loss of data. A file transfer protocol can handle all types of files including binary files and ASCII text files. See Kermit, Zmodem and FTP.  (FTP FTP
 in full file transfer protocol

Internet protocol that allows a computer to send files to or receive files from another computer. Like many Internet resources, FTP works by means of a client-server architecture; the user runs client software to connect to
), E-mail, or telnet.

Once your browser had the file you could open up the appropriate program to view this file; for example, LVIEW for images, PLANY for sound. Or you could crank up the appropriate telnet, FTP, or other program to work with the specified server.

Increasingly, browsers like Netscape Navigator An earlier Web browser for Windows, Macintosh and X Windows from Netscape that provided secure transmission over the Internet. Soon after its introduction in 1994, Navigator, or just "Netscape," as it was commonly called, quickly became the leading browser on the Web. , Microsoft Internet Explorer See Internet Explorer. , Mosaic, and others are automating and simplifying this process, invoking the appropriate program and helping it find the file. If you have the RealAudio program installed, for instance, selecting a pointer to a RealAudio file causes the program to start up and begin playing the file.

Programs that can be used like this are called either helper applications or plug-ins. There is a distinction between the two, as I've recently learned. "Helper" means that the program can run on its own, without the browser. Examples include the EWAN EWAN Emulator Without A Name
EWAN EGNOS Wide Area Communications Network (aviation)
EWAN Electronic Warfare Aircraft Navigator
EWAN Ethernet Wide Area Network
EWAN Emulator without a Good Name
EWAN Enterprise Wide Area Network
 (Emulator Without A Name) terminal/telnet program, the WS_FTP file transfer client, the LVIEW graphics renderer, and the Amber reader for Adobe Acrobat.

Plug-ins appears to mean that the program won't run by itself, but must be invoked and work through the browser. Plug-ins communicate better with browser programs, and perhaps work more efficiently.

There are dozens of helper apps and plug-ins, including ones for files created by popular corporate applications like CorelDraw, Microsoft Word, Shockwave Director, PowerPoint, QuickTime VRML/virtual reality and other modeling formats, and more. All sorts of programs are being hooked in, using browsers as an interface to the Internet--groupware, Lotus Notes Messaging and groupware software from IBM Lotus that was introduced in 1989 for OS/2 and later expanded to Windows, Mac, Unix, NetWare, AS/400 and S/390. Notes provides e-mail, document sharing, workflow, group discussions and calendaring and scheduling. , calendaring, etc.

Typically, sites provide "click here to download" pointers for all plug-ins and helper apps they use, and commercial versions of browsers increasingly include these programs. If you want to go cruising for them in advance, the best place to start looking is the home page of your browser's vendor (for example,,http://,http:/

For Windows users, other good places to start are Forrest Stroud's Consummate Winsock Apps List ( and The Ultimate Collection of Winsock Software (


A lot has been written about "overload and collapse" within the Internet. Many of the problems occur outside of your corporate network, beyond your control--for example, oversaturated routes, overloaded web sites, performance problems imposed by current versions of the HTTP protocol, and Web sites designed by people who clearly have never had to sit on the other end of a modem.

However, many problems and limits of Internet use are on your side of the Internet connection, within the corporate network. Many of these, in fact, are strongly related to Java, plug-ins, and helper apps.

Although all these browser-extenders do make browsers more capable, and, therefore, let their users do more, each "improvement" comes at a price.

The first and most immediate is the demand placed on the hardware and software you provide to your users.

First of all, there's platform upgrade. The platform that the most tools are available for is Win95. So if your users aren't already running Win95, you may be pushed into the time, effort, and expense of an unplanned upgrade, plus the halo-effect consequences (internal support, for one). If you have users with Macs, 486s, etc., you may be pressured to buy them new computers ahead of schedule.

Next, these computers need enough muscle aside from raw processing power. Newer versions of Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer, the two leading browsers, require 8 to 12 MB of random access memory to begin with.

It's the same with hard disks. Today's browsers start by demanding 5 to 10 MB for their files--not a lot, given the size and price of disks today, but when was the last time you upgraded disks for your users? Also, they'll need probably 5 to 20 MB of disk space for parking temp files created during the session (for each HTML, graphic, audio, and other file).

Don't forget disk space for plug-ins and helper apps, either; they'll chew up 5 to 50 MB depending on how many of these programs your users need.


Next, there's a little matter of security.

Your users can now grab files in many more formats, including Word, PowerPoint, Excel. How safe are these? If they only want to view these files, you can alleviate most of the worry about macro viruses by using viewer helper apps (which don't trigger the virus) instead of the full program. But some users will suck down and use documents as is. Do their computers automatically scan for viruses? User A may practice "safe nets," but suppose User A forwards a macro-virus-laden Word file to User B, who opens it with Word, rather than the Word viewer?

Ditto Java. Will you require users to disable To turn off; deactivate. See disabled.  Java so that no applets will run? Or will you bite your nails and hope nothing bad happens?

This, of course, begs the question as to whether the main browser, helper apps, and plug-ins are safe to use (that is, robust and reliable, not buggy Refers to software that contains many flaws. Many in the software industry swear that bugs are inevitable, and perhaps they are right. As long as we work in the competitive, pressure-cooker environment of our high-tech world, products will more often than not be developed too hastily and  and crash-prone). Now is a good time to make sure all important data files (including bookmarks and hot lists) are backed up to external media.

Another danger posed by today's "exciting" Internet applications is that they'll consume disproportionate amounts of your Internet connection (the leased line A private communications channel leased from a common carrier. Most digital lines require four wires (two pairs) for full-duplex transmission.

(communications, networking) leased line
 between your site and your Internet service provider Internet service provider (ISP)

Company that provides Internet connections and services to individuals and organizations. For a monthly fee, ISPs provide computer users with a connection to their site (see data transmission), as well as a log-in name and password.

Network managers used to worry about users grabbing weather and radar maps from the Internet, as it only takes three or four users like this to max out an Internet connection.

Today, streaming applications like RealAudio and cyclic ones like PointCast gobble up Verb 1. gobble up - eat a large amount of food quickly; "The children gobbled down most of the birthday cake"
garbage down, shovel in, bolt down

eat - take in solid food; "She was eating a banana"; "What did you eat for dinner last night?"
 bandwidth all day long. Sites have reported seeing 30% to 50% of their Internet link going to PointCast updates for a few dozen users, for example.

One answer is to upgrade your connection. Or you can ask your users to try to reduce unnecessary consumption.


The biggest danger linked with viruses, in my opinion, is theft of time. Making Internet resources, especially the Web, available from every desktop is like providing a pinball machine whose use is semi-justifiable. It's no longer possible to tell people, "Don't use the net, don't search the Web" if it's part of getting their job done. But it's so easy to follow hyperlinks, keep checking search results, and get lost in the Web for an hour or more.

There are no easy answers here. Your people need to learn how to use the Internet productively, and they will need to use it to be productive. But they'll also need to learn how to get OFF the Internet.

The moral, in short, for network and MIS management: If your users hadn't learned about these latest and greatest net-toys, would they miss them? And are you gaining productivity ... or losing it?
COPYRIGHT 1996 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Internet/Web/Online Service Information; Putting the Internet to Work; plug-ins and helper applications
Author:Dern, Daniel
Publication:Communications News
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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