Picture this: a world where the Internet is unremarkable because it is everywhere.
Corporate computer users will open files stored on the Internet as if they were opening a file on their local hard drive.
And just by turning on their laptops, users working in the field will be connected to far-flung LANs linked over corporate intranets.
This scenario is not too far away from becoming reality.
Operating system vendors, including Microsoft, IBM, and others, are bundling facilities into their latest client and server operating systems that will let users seamlessly use the Internet to share files and applications.
To accomplish this, vendors are merging today's Internet browser and desktop GUI to create an integrated environment that lets users find and launch any file regardless of where it is located. Eventually, analysts say, end-users won't think about where a file is stored, and the Internet will seem to be part of a massive, globally distributed hard drive.
"We're going in that direction; it's bleeding edge," says Dan Kuznetsky, an analyst at IDC. "The technologies are available now, or will be in the very near future, and vendors have begun bundling them. It will be a requirement for all operating systems in the medium-term future."
Microsoft offered a preliminary peek at this type of environment at the Internet Professional Developers' Conference in San Francisco. The company showed a beta release of the Internet Add-on, which links its Explorer 3.0 browser directly to the Explorer file menu in Windows 95.
But this latest attempt by Microsoft to make the Internet its own is only a small sample of things to come - once a number of networking challenges are resolved.
In today's environments, IS managers are rushing to build corporate intranets based on the TCP/IP protocol to create electronic communities, sometimes called virtual private networks, that let users reach anywhere in the world.
But managing these environments is difficult, because Internet Protocol's (IP) Domain Naming System (DNS) is complex, especially when dealing with rapidly changing corporate environments.
"If a corporation itself was static, then IP would be easy," says a technical specialist at Comdisco. "But with DNS [as it exists now] I have to assign every computer in my network a complete set of IP addresses by hand whenever it joins the network."
The difficulty of configuring and maintaining IP domain names has placed real restrictions upon the use of the Internet to share data across enterprises, and solving this issue has now become a top priority in the drive to distribute client/server applications across the enterprise.
"Modern application frameworks should provide some sort of communication mechanism," says Steve Jobs, the CEO and president of Next Software. "If this mechanism uses TCP/IP as its underlying transport protocol, then any application can communicate with any other application anywhere on the Internet."
This means, for starters, that IS managers can expect every future server to come bundled with an array of basic Internet services.
According to IDC's Kuznetsky, at the very least these will include TCP/IP, an IPX-to-IP gateway to join Novell NetWare networks to the Internet, a File Transfer Protocol server, a Simple Mail Transfer Protocol e-mail server, a World Wide Web server, a database engine, and a Gopher search engine.
Microsoft's Internet Information Server, for instance, has most of these features and will be bundled with Windows NT 4.0 Server, which is expected to ship in June.
But, more importantly, the big OS providers, including Microsoft, IBM, The Santa Cruz Operation (SCO), and Sun Microsystems, have been tinkering with DNS in order to let IP addresses be "dynamically", or automatically, found and used whenever a computer joins the network.
These efforts should make it possible for a user to find any resource on the Internet.
"Prior to this, if you were looking for a specific file on a specific machine, you had no chance of finding that machine unless the administrator had given you the address of that machine," says Enzo Schiano, Windows NT Server product manager at Microsoft in the US.
Microsoft will ship an integrated Domain Naming System/Windows Naming System (DNS/WINS) with Windows NT 4.0.
When a Microsoft Windows NT client using NetBIOS-to-IP protocols makes a request to a Windows NT Server to be connected with, for example, a specific file at the domain name microsoft.com, DNS/WINS dynamically sends an update of the NetBIOS database, including the IP address of the file at microsoft.com Bingo, you're where you want to be.
"Dynamic DNS is a real pay-off if you're a large corporation," said an IS manager, Jonathan Handler. "Even if you're moving people and computers around, as really happens in real companies, you can still use the Internet to connect everyone. To be able to plug into a wall and be treated as part of the corporate network over the Net - now that's really cool."
Despite Microsoft's fanfare, the software giant isn't really offering true dynamic DNS: Microsoft's product only works with NetBIOS systems, and users will have to wait for Microsoft to support all other IP hosts. Microsoft has not specified a date for supplying connectivity to other systems, and other vendors are further along in terms of embedding DNS as a service directly into their OSes.
IBM, for example, is already there. When OS/2 Warp Server shipped recently, it came bundled with an integrated Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol/Dynamic Domain Naming System (DHCP/DDNS) package that lets a computer - any computer - configure itself for IP network access whenever it plugs into the IP network. All DNS addresses are updated, not just the subset of NetBIOS addresses.
Sun has also begun shipping a DHCP package for Sun Solaris, says Sun's Tony Hample. SCO will ship true dynamic DNS with the first version of its Atlas Unix server, due in April, according to Marty Picco, director of layered products at SCO. And Caldera's Caldera Network Desktop is not far behind, says Caldera's president, Bryan Sparks.
Novell, meanwhile, is now delivering DHCP links to DNS hosts.
From the end-user's point of view, changing technologies in the back office will create a revolution on the desktop.
"The user's desktop will come to seem no more than a part of the Internet," says Andrew Schullman, author of Windows 95 Unauthorised.
When Microsoft shows off the new Internet Add-on next week, developers will get to see an interface that merges the Windows 95 File Explorer and Internet Explorer 3.0 to create a customisable shell where users can launch IP domain sites of all kinds, including Web addresses, from nodes on a directory tree.
Microsoft developed the technology, code-named ShellView and originally planned for the Nashville upgrade to Windows 95, because it believes users shouldn't have to go to a separate environment to reach the Internet, according to the company.
But Microsoft isn't the only desktop vendor that has seen which way the tide is flowing. Apple will integrate its Cyberdog Internet interface directly into its upcoming Copland OS, now expected to ship near the end of the year. Copland users will be able to browse the Internet from any OpenDoc application, including the Mac OS file manager and Finder, and drag and drop Internet links directly into applications.
Users like the idea of integrating Internet access directly into the Copland operating system. "I was very impressed [with Cyberdog]," says Rex Sanders, an IS manager. "I can only speak for my own little chunk of the world, but the Internet is mission critical for us. We can't get our work done without it any more."
John Thompson, general manager of IBM's Personal Systems Products, promised that Big Blue will integrate OS/2 Warp's Web browser with Merlin, the next version of Warp, due in the second quarter.
Finally, the recently released Caldera Network Desktop is designed from the ground up to be an Internet OS and boasts an interface where users can create desktop icons to launch Internet files.
System vendors are scurrying to transform the traditional OS because they're scared, analysts say.
"It's pretty clear, isn't it?" says Edward Slade, an analyst at Barclays de Zoet Wedd, in Hong Kong. "Microsoft and the rest are trying to take the Internet and swallow it whole before they get swallowed."
The Internet-aware OS is a direct response to challenges from companies such as Netscape, Sun, and Oracle, which have gambled on the idea that the Internet is a radically different technology that will require radically different solutions - solutions that the challengers believe traditional system vendors are ill-placed to provide.
These challengers, which make most of their revenue from server applications, would like users to forget the client OS altogether and think of the browser, busy downloading Java applications, as their desktop computing environment. In the back office, these vendors hope that Internet-specific servers will be corporations' preferred gateway to the Internet.
But, in a world where the Internet has become an extension of the OS that allows servers to find and launch any IP-based file and clients to see no real distinction between the Internet and the local hard drive, these challengers may soon find that traditional OS vendors have stolen their thunder.
"If I were Netscape or any of those guys, I would be worried," said analyst Rob Enderle. "I think this stuff provides a compelling argument to stay on board with your current vendor."