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"Active Desktop" powering up

Microsoft is once again set to make over Windows, this time as a Web browser.

Less than a year after giving its operating system a radical face-lift with Windows 95, Microsoft is once again set to make over the user interface, this time as a Web browser.

While business users are eager to try out the new version, analysts are predicting that users will resist actually upgrading their desktops, saying the change comes too closely on the heels of Windows 95.

At its Intranet Strategy Day briefing yesterday in San Jose, California, Microsoft introduced the concept of its Active Desktop, a new look and feel that will turn the Windows desktop and files into Web pages, complete with hyperlinks, Java applets, and ActiveX controls. Yesterday, for example, Microsoft demonstrated an Active Desktop that includes a real-time stock display designed for financial analysts.

The Active Desktop, which will first be introduced as part of a Windows 95 update code-named Nashville entering beta testing this summer, according to company officials. The technology will also surface in Windows NT.

"The [Windows] desktop is a page," Gates said yesterday. "It's just the page you see when you start up. All of the pages that you look at will have links [in Windows]. [They'll] be used for everything."

The Nashville OS update will also include Internet Explorer 4.0, a version of the browser that merges the existing Windows Explorer desktop manager and Internet Explorer. The new Explorer will use a browser interface not only for accessing the Net, but local, intranet, and Internet documents.

Some Microsoft corporate users who saw the Active Desktop demonstration yesterday said the new Internet capabilities as dovetailing with their plans to deploy intranets. Furthermore, the new interface won't require additional training since users are increasingly familiar with browser features such as HTML forms and hyperlinking.

"That's why the Web is so easy to adjust to," said Eric Muench, a contractor at Owens Corning. "The hyperlinks and the entire concept of point and click. It's more designed around a user's mind-set."

As intranets become more pervasive, some corporate users also see an advantage to having Web access built directly into the operating system, a trend that may gradually take users away from stand-alone Web browsers such as Netscape Communications' Navigator.

"I would not want to underestimate the intranet," said Tony Black, enterprise architect at Bank of Montreal.

But analysts say the majority of corporations may look askance at suddenly being asked to install and learn a new interface so soon after spending considerable resources to move to Windows 95, analysts said.

"There will definitely be some resistance among corporate users...to convert so quickly from what Microsoft billed as the be-all-and-end-all of interfaces at the time of the Windows 95 launch," said Dwight Davis, editorial director at industry newsletter Windows Watcher. "Less than a year after this wonderful OS launched, they're completely converting the interface to accommodate the interface of browsers."

Microsoft maintains that they will not force-feed the Active Desktop to its customers, allowing users to keep the existing Windows 95 look and feel with its hierarchical folder system and more traditional desktop interface. "The idea is to integrate the new [Web] metaphor with the old," said Collins Hemingway, director of business development for Microsoft's desktop and business systems division.

Indeed, corporate customers, customarily slow to move on new technologies, may simply keep their desktops decidedly inactive to avoid retraining users.

"After everybody's gone through a big Windows 95 [upgrade], all of a sudden [the Active Desktop] is a big pill to swallow," said John Robb, an analyst with Forrester Research. "In two years, only 2 to 3 percent of companies will be running Active Desktops."

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