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Internet

1996 could be year of the intranet

Internet has become a household word, but this week's conclave of everyone who is anyone in cyberspace reflected a tilt toward a new preference for the corporate intranet user over the individual consumer.

Internet has become a household word, but this week's conclave of everyone who is anyone in cyberspace reflected a tilt toward the developers at the back end and a new preference for the corporate intranet user over the individual consumer.

Multimedia Net development tools like Java, RealAudio, and Shockwave, not to mention a slew of new VRML tools, captured the imaginations of showgoers, but most of the attendees were more likely to have T1 connections to the Net rather than the pokey 14.4-kbps modems that most home users still have.

But despite the fact that the digerati are still considerably ahead of the average user, the show gave industry leaders a chance to confer publicly that the Internet is where it's at, that everything's going ahead full speed, and that nothing can stop the virtual world from taking over the real world.

In his keynote speech, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates reiterated his vision of absorbing everything Internet--including browsing features, protocols, and now Java--into the Windows operating system.

Eight other OS vendors agreed with that idea. Led by Java creator Sun Microsystems, they all agreed to embed Java engines directly into their operating systems. At the announcement of their plans, Sun co-founder Bill Joy described in exquisite, or excruciating, detail several of the upcoming technical features of the Java programming language. His description offered evidence of why it's a good idea to have Java everywhere but would probably have frightened off any unsuspecting newbie who had strayed into the room.

As the OS vendors are making their offerings more Net-savvy, Microsoft and Netscape Communications promoted new versions of their Web browsers, both of which have sprouted so many new features and grown so large that they look more and more like operating systems themselves.

And accordingly, the browser battles are increasingly resembling the OS wars of five years ago. Netscape used the show to christen a "pre-release" version of its browser, code-named Atlas, as Navigator 3.0. Microsoft announced a new beta of Internet Explorer too. But the rush to get new versions out the door left more than one observer commenting that users barely had time to get used to the 2.0 versions of Explorer and Navigator before the 3.0 versions arrived.

But the browser wars were almost the only products at the show with a large consumer audience. Throughout the event, the word intranet almost invariably was mentioned in the same breath by vendors as the Internet. In his keynote speech, Steve Markman, Novell executive vice president, said the intranet has become even hotter than the Internet.

The focus on intranets suggested that, now that so many of them have shareholders to worry about, Internet companies are beginning to think more seriously about where the profits for Internet software and services will be found. That leads them to think about Fortune 1,000 companies.

Maybe the attention will swing back to the consumer next year, after the Net access services from the big telcos reach out and touch a lot of consumers. Rick Hronicek, president of Pacific Bell Internet Services, predicted this week in his keynote that the Net will finally become a mass phenomenon when access is as cheap as phone service. That will happen, he said, when $500 Network Computers become available. Any sign of those yet? Not this week.