If It Walks Like a Duck and Quacks Like a Duck ...

You might have thought it was merely a rumor, but the Explorer Graphical User Interface (E-GUI) is available for Windows NT 3.51. A carryover from Windows 95, the E-GUI brings enhanced usability and a more attractive appearance to NT. If you've heard that it's similar to Apple's Macintosh System 7.5--well, it is. It seems to be a cross of the Macintosh operating system, Sun Microsystems' Solaris, and Open Software Foundation's (OSF's) Motif. The advantage to the E-GUI is that it includes most of their best features.

Ease of use and compatibility are the hallmarks of this new interface, and I have had no problems with my applications not working. Programs such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop seamlessly adopt the look and feel of the E-GUI, making them easier to use.

Be aware that the E-GUI is not officially a product and is not even in beta testing: It is currently an alpha release, or "technology preview." It's available as a "use-it-at-your-own-risk" package, which you can download directly from Microsoft FTP or from CompuServe. Just be sure to grab the correct version for your CPU. Microsoft officials expect to have the E-GUI in beta form by the first or second quarter of 1996, and as a shipping product by 1997 (perhaps as part of Cairo). After you download the file, you execute it by entering its name in the Run dialog which unpacks the files required to install the new interface. Next, run the shupdate.cmd file which actually installs the GUI.

In its current alpha form, there are some things you will find lacking in the NT version of the E-GUI, especially if you have already used it in Windows 95:

  • No plug and play
  • No pop-up Properties dialog
  • Nonfunctional Windows NT Diagnostics tool and Find File

However, you will find:

  • 3-D shaded dialog boxes and buttons for a more attractive appearance
  • Single-click access to menus (one mouse click on a menu item allows you to navigate through submenus without multiple button presses)
  • Help pointers--Automatic pop-up text boxes indicating the function of a toolbar or other item, accessed by moving the cursor over the button/item
  • Task Bar--Current time display and access to all running processes
  • Start Menu--A customizable menu for direct access to applications, documents, the Control Panel, Macros, etc.
  • Attributes of the new GUI are available to all applications
  • Drag-and-drop file execution

The Desktop
The new desktop offers what Microsoft calls the Explorer metaphor (thus, Explorer-GUI), which presents you with a graphical view of the objects available to your computer, such as the mounted disk drives (either local or networked), a Recycle Bin, Shortcuts, a Briefcase, and your Network Neighborhood, which shows all the other systems in your enterprise.

Your personal system, named "My Computer" by default (you can change this), is an object on the desktop containing resources, such as disk drives, and object pointers, such as the Control Panel. You can display items on your system either in the familiar "folder and file" view or by using the Explorer metaphor, which lists items alphabetically with hierarchical trees. As in any graphically oriented operating system, views, lists, and other properties are configurable.

The Briefcase adds functionality for mobile computing. You can place the files that you are going to use on the road in your Briefcase, and when you reattach to your home system, NT will automatically synchronize those files with the older versions. This capability could be quite useful for databases that you modify frequently, letters or other word processing files, or objects that need to be kept in synch with work done by other people on your network.

The Network Neighborhood is a fast and easy way to access shared resources from other systems. When opened, it searches your WAN/LAN for other workstations and servers. Each workstation or server that the Network Neighborhood finds can be opened as if it were a local drive, assuming that the disks have been set up to be shared. Your network is displayed via expandable trees, so you can go to different domains within your enterprise. If no disks are mounted on a particular system, you simply won't be able to expand that system's object.

The Recycle Bin functions like the Trash Can in Apple's Macintosh operating system: Objects can be dumped there directly from applications or from the Explorer/desktop, and won't be destroyed until you specifically empty the Bin. You may still be able to recover lost items if those particular disk sectors haven't been overwritten (FAT only).

Shortcuts are another handy addition to the NT environment, giving you quick pointers to files, network drives, applications, and other resources without having to search through endless menus and folders every time. These pointers are created from the desktop and displayed there for easy access.

The Task Bar, which can be put on any of the four screen boundaries (left, right, top, bottom), will show you what your system is running. You can switch dynamically among applications by pressing the button that is labeled with the application you want. These buttons are created automatically for every open application.

Impressions
The Explorer GUI will give you a glimpse into the future of Windows NT, where objects rule supreme. Eventually, all resources, such as peripherals and printers, will follow object laws, and the system will handle all specifics in a manner transparent to the user. Then, everything on your computer can be dealt with in one way, whether you're manipulating database files, printers, disk drives, or networks--an OOP developer's dream.

As an old-time Macintosh user, I feel right at home with the E-GUI, whereas I always felt "out in the cold" with the old interface. I could rarely find what I needed with ease. The instant access to applications and files, more attractive setup, and logical layout of the E-GUI combine to help you interact more effectively with your system. Command-key equivalents are still available for all functions, so you don't even have to use a mouse if you don't want to.

For those of you who yearn for the old ways, you can still run the old Program Manager for functions such as launching applications from within folders. But if you take some time to learn the E-GUI, I think you'll be impressed.

Seriously consider implementing this interface on your system, but remember to weigh those few problems I mentioned. You may want to wait for the official release.

Explorer GUI
Requirements: Windows NT 3.51 Server or Workstation
Contact: Microsoft * 206-882-8080
CompuServe: GO MSDR