In his seminal 1968 novel, "Stand on Zanzibar", visionary science fiction writer John Brunner imagined the world of 2000 A.D. would be based on what he called a "plug-in lifestyle". With the proliferation of franchised businesses throughout the Westernized world and with employment modeled on a project basis, the workers of 2000 A.D. could and would "unplug" from their current employer and residence, move thousands of miles and "plug-in" to a new job, new housing and (with the aid of computerized affinity- matching) a new set of friends, all without changing their lifestyle in other than minor details. Almost 30 years later, Brunner's vision appears to have had 20-20 acuity: one American suburb is nearly identical with another, one franchised coffee bar interchangeable with its distant counterpart, one shopping mall a virtual clone of the next, and Western Europe is becoming much the same as America.
The computing universe has also adopted a plug-in lifestyle, albeit in a wholly different sense. In the software world, the term "plug-in" has come to mean the use of third-party or other external applications operating as part of a base application or operating system and thereby extending its functionality. The term first surfaced in the late 1980's when Silicon Beach Software introduced the concept of a folder full of plug-in tools for its Macintosh SuperPaint application. Adobe Corporation and the former Aldus Corporation both appropriated the term for their PhotoShop and PageMaker products and Apple itself got into the act by incorporating the idea into its MacOS System 7 architecture.
With the January 17, 1996 announcement by Netscape Communications Corporation of support from 15 software vendors for the Navigator version 2.0 plug-in architecture (http://home.mcom.com/newsref/pr/newsrelease73.html), the concept finally achieved mainstream visibility. The Navigator 2.0 browser can now be extended to permit it to display data in Adobe's Acrobat (http://www.adobe.com/acrobat/amber/download.html) and Tumbleweed Software's Envoy (http://www.twcorp.com/download.htm) portable document formats, video movies in such formats as Audio/Video Interleave, (using Iterated Systems' Coolfushion available from http://www.iterated.com/coolfusn/download/cf-loadp.htm) the Motion Picture Experts Group standard (with Open2U's ACTION plug-in at http://www.open2u.com/action/ACTION32.EXE) and Apple's QuickTime (via Intelligence At Large's Moviestar for Mac and MS Windows at http://188.8.131.52/moviestar/plugins/). There is a myriad of other Navigator plug-ins also available, (http://home.mcom.com/comprod/products/navigator/version_2.0/plugins/index.html) introducing document conferencing and remote control applications, software distribution, OLE/OCX/ActiveX control and a host of other capabilities to the browser.
All this new functionality adds great power to the browser, for both Internet and Intranet environments. However, as Prometheus discovered when he stole the secret of fire from the Greek gods, power always has a price. In the case of Navigator plug-ins, one such cost is "browser sprawl". Plug-ins each take up a certain amount of hard drive space and they each eat up RAM and system resources. Add too many of them and your Pentium or PowerMac computer will run like a slug on drugs.
The proliferation of standards is a still more insidious problem. At the Spring Internet World show, I saw no less than a dozen, mostly small, vendors, each offering an animation authoring toolset based on its own, proprietary file format. Of course, each vendor offered a Netscape plug-in viewer for its otherwise- incompatible data format and each one had a list of reasons why its particular technical direction was superior to all the others, but, the fundamental problem is that there just isn't room enough for all those competing standards in the long run. A similar problem exists with the half-dozen or so non-interoperable Internet telephony products.
Netscape's Navigator 3.0 will probably settle the issue of an Internet telephony standard once and for all. According to the somewhat-reliable Dataquest organization, Navigator 2.0 held approximately 84% of the browser market as of the end of April. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 2.0 had 7%, the pitiful AOL browser had 3% and the rest of the three-dozen or so browsers shared the remaining 6%. Since a de-facto standard is still a standard, as the widespread popularity of HTML tables and frames demonstrates, I suspect that Navigator 3.0 will instantly create just such a de-facto standard for Internet-based telephony. The odds are it will beat Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.0 to release by several months, and although both products incorporate telephony as part of the core application, Netscape's CoolTalk will probably have established ownership of the market well before Microsoft's competitive offering becomes available.
The uncontrolled proliferation of incompatible standards on the Internet poses a real problem for Intranet architectures, as well. Choose the wrong technology for your corporate computing environment and you may well find yourself stuck with an orphan product, potentially creating a roadblock to future upgrades of your browser. There is a plethora of choices of standards to pick from in a variety of different technologies, and not all of them include as obvious a winner as does the telephony decision. Today, in the portable document arena, in the realm of video movie formats, in the field of vector graphics standards, and in so many other areas, the Babel of incompatible formats and competing standards makes an intelligent choice of technical direction almost impossible.
There are some rules of thumb available, however. For one thing, you should pay attention to the recommendations of the Internet Engineering Task Force's various Working Groups, but mostly ignore the various vendors' recommendations TO those Working Groups. For another, consider the effects of alliances, mergers and cooperative agreements on standards promulgation. Synergy can be a potent market factor. Remember that size and existing market share still count for something, even in the fast-moving Internet market, but they don't count for everything. And pay attention to what the early adopters are enthused about. Cyberpunks will often see a winner well before the rest of the Internet galaxy even realizes there's a competition.
Which brings us full circle to John Brunner, whose "The Shockwave Rider" has the distinction of having been the progenitor of the cyberpunk novel, (although a mere nine years later, William Gibson's "Neuromancer" would be acknowledged as having "created" the genre).
(Copyright© 1996 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)