The Lab Guys recently left the blue, sunny skies of Colorado for a trip to the gray, drizzly skies of Washington to see what's hot and what's not in the land of the Redmondites. Here is my unabashed report on the stuff that Microsoft wants us to think is hot.
Memphis is the follow-on product to Windows 95. Is Memphis a consumer product or a corporate desktop product? Memphis will find its way to a vast number of corporate desktops, but many of its features are decidedly consumer- oriented. For example, Memphis will include better audio quality, an on screen TV interface (adapter required), and improved support for multimedia files. After the Memphis demo, Microsoft convinced me that this product will make headway into the consumer entertainment market.
Does this consumer friendliness make Memphis a bad corporate desktop unit? No. Many other features in Memphis will certainly appeal to corporate users. For example, with Memphis, you can connect up to four video displays to a single system and control which programs run on which monitors. Memphis also supports the Internet Explorer (IE) 4.0-integrated interface that lets you search your hard disk or the Web through the same user interface. Little of the Web-oriented technology in Memphis will be useful unless you have a dedicated Internet connection.
Although IE 4.0 is part of Memphis, IE has a life of its own. Microsoft is busily porting IE 4.0 to a variety of platforms--even 16-bit Windows and Macs. However, to use the really cool features of IE 4.0 (e.g., the integrated browser desktop and automatic Web page downloading), you need to be running a 32-bit Windows operating system--namely Win95 or Windows NT 4.0. IE 4.0 is chock full of features--way too many to discuss here. But watch this magazine for details.
Speaking of the Web, the final release of Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0 should be available by the time you read this article. IIS 4.0 is interesting for many reasons, but what I find most interesting is that IIS has become the precursor to NT 5.0 technology. For example, IIS 4.0 includes the Microsoft Management Console (MMC) and takes advantage of Microsoft's Transaction Server, both of which are mainstream NT 5.0 features. My advice is that if you want to preview NT 5.0 technology, take a look at IIS 4.0--it operates on the leading edge of NT technology.
Zero Administration Technology
Zero administration is huge and embraces many different technologies including Windows terminals, NetPCs, and Systems Policy Editor. Unfortunately, the zero administration technology you'll see right away (in the form of a Zero Administration Kit--ZAK) includes nothing more than enhanced documentation, implementation guidelines, and new templates to use with the existing Systems Policy Editor (SPE). Now don't get me wrong--SPE is not a bad thing. It is one of the more powerful and underused capabilities of NT, and if you implement policies correctly, you can lower your desktop administration hassles and costs. Microsoft will enhance and automate the SPE capabilities as part of NT 5.0.
Microsoft's zero administration strategy also embraces the NetPC, Microsoft's forthcoming Windows terminal definition, and by association, Microsoft's multiuser implementation of NT Server (code-named Hydra--see Mark Smith, "Thin Is In," page 102, for details about thin clients). Both the NetPC and Windows terminal offer new and exciting capabilities for desktop management, but these advantages come with a drawback. You'll have to pay to play, because many of the management capabilities are built into the hardware of the NetPCs and Windows terminals.
What's the payoff for the investment? Well, using the NetPC, you can simply replace a broken desktop unit with a new unit, and the NT Server system will automatically download and conFigure the user desktop. The Windows terminal is an even "thinner" solution that doesn't require any download--the user's desktop runs on the server. Mark my words, NetPC and Windows terminal technology is getting hotter by the day.
Site Server is the newest member of the BackOffice suite. Site Server combines electronic commerce, personalization, content development, content replication, site management, and site and usage analysis. Ever wonder what happened to Microsoft's Merchant Server? Well, it's now the electronic commerce part of Site Server. Remember the content replicator for IIS? It too is part of Site Server. And the content development component is Microsoft's Visual InterDev, a well-received tool for Web page design (for more information about Visual InterDev, see T.J. Harty, "Microsoft Visual InterDev 1.0, Beta," March 1997). In short, Microsoft created Site Server from several components that have been floating around.
Is this collection of components useful? Absolutely--you might not find the electronic commerce and personalization components useful if you don't intend to sell products over the Internet, but all the other components are of mainstream interest. For example, content replication lets you keep multiple IIS servers in sync, the site management tool verifies the integrity of your page links both on and off your servers, and the reporting tool lets you see a breakdown of your site traffic.
Proxy Server 2.0
I didn't expect to get very excited about Microsoft's Proxy Server. Frankly, I thought Proxy Server was a good firewall alternative for sites that can't afford a "real" firewall. But Proxy Server 2.0 stands to change my belief and promises to challenge the mainstream firewall products. With release 2.0, Proxy Server provides comprehensive packet-level filtering, much-improved throughput, and support for hierarchical Web page caches to improve performance in network environments requiring multiple proxy servers and firewalls. In short, Proxy Server has grown legs and not only is it running, but it is doing a good job of kicking the bits out of its competitors.
I was fascinated that Proxy Server comes out of the same group that delivered Microsoft's new and improved multiprotocol routing software (code-named Steelhead--for more information about Steelhead, see Mark Minasi, "Steelhead Swims into the Mainstream," and Tao Zhou, "Steelhead's OSPF Routing," August 1997). Rest assured, no networking cowards are in this group of developers. As if such products weren't enough work for one group, I was amazed to learn that the same group is also responsible for the telephony interfaces inside NT. Talk about a full plate!
Hot or Not?
I've not mentioned Microsoft's BackOffice/Enterprise Edition or the Small Business Server offerings. I sensed that the different project leaders were on different timelines for delivering Enterprise Editions of their products. In fact, the Enterprise Editions of the various BackOffice components will probably be available as individual products this year. However, you may not see the Enterprise Edition of the entire prepackaged BackOffice suite until 1998.
As for the Small Business Server, we all know that it is a combined version of NT Server, Exchange, SQL Server, and Proxy Server. But that's all we know at this point. This topic was one that Microsoft was unwilling to talk about--on or off the record. I'll keep you updated on this product as information becomes available.