Beefing up browsers.
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 pages).
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 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 files (ASCII text with HTML format codes), GIF images, and possibly sound clips and JPG images.
Web sites can contain movie files, streaming audio/video, Microsoft Word or PowerPoint documents, documents in CorelDraw, Shockwave Director, Adobe Acrobat, and others. Web addresses often point to other server types, such as file transfer protocol (FTP), 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, Microsoft 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 (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, 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://www.netscape.com,http:// www.microsoft.com,http:/www.sun.com).
For Windows users, other good places to start are Forrest Stroud's Consummate Winsock Apps List (http://www.cweapps.com) and The Ultimate Collection of Winsock Software (http://www.tucows.com).
PLUG-INS POSE PROBLEMS
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.
SECURITY: JAVA, WORMS, MACRO VIRUSES
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 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 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 between your site and your Internet service provider).
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 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?