[J Street Mailer (Click here).]

Chris' Rant- by Chris Wenham

Software Distribution in the New Millennium

This piece is partially written for the ones who fret and doubt the existence of a "Warp 5", or that OS/2 will ever see updates to keep it current. The fact is, you probably won't see a "Warp 5" (and wouldn't it be just like IBM to prove me wrong?). But this isn't FUD, and you needn't feel threatened by it. Because in the coming years and the new millennium, the way that software will be distributed is going to change dramatically. In some places it already has. It's time to give up the fixation on major releases, they're on their way out, and it's all thanks to the Internet.

Here are the new trends for software distribution, neither of which replace current store-shelf methods on their own, but which all add up to almost completely eliminate the need for shrink-wrap. They also chart the future of application support in OS/2, and why things don't look so bad after all.

#1: Direct-to-HTML

A number of former standalone applications have already made the transition from compiled code to HTML-based forms delivered by a web server. Reference materials like dictionaries and encyclopedias in particular, but now E-Mail and newsreading has too. Where CD-ROMs wiped out the market for expensive, printed encyclopedia sets, the Web is wiping out the market for CD-ROMs. Who wants to pay for a reference that's outdated before you even buy it, when you can subscribe to an online source instead?

Thanks to Hotmail, Yahoo and AltaVista, you now don't need an e-mail client. The application is in the web page itself, complete with folders, filters, searching, signatures and a free account to boot. And with web-based games like Earth 2025 getting more sophisticated, you'll see them replacing more and more categories of entertainment that you used to clear a space on the shelf and hard drive for. Action games like Quake aren't in any danger, but strategy games like Galactic Civilizations and even Myst could be rewritten as games played through a web browser -- following enhancements to VRML and other web browser technologies.

#2: HTML Hybrids

While in the planning stages of a community calendar web site intended to keep track of upcoming events, meetings, and all the important addresses relevant to a community, it occurred to me that with just a couple more tables in the server's database I could turn it into a fully featured Personal Information Manager (PIM). A little password protection, and an individual user could enter his private schedule -- separate from the community calendar -- along with his personal address book, notes and ToDo lists. But a web page, even with some Javascript tricks, can't display alarms or dial the phone for you; features taken for granted in traditional PIMs.

But what if you downloaded a tiny Java (or native) utility that complemented the features already implemented in HTML? Every time you sign online or edit your calendar, the applet downloads your schedule and waits in the background until it needs to display an alarm or dial the phone, caching your pages too so you can view and edit them even while offline.

These are the hybrids, which are already here too -- such as Yahoo's newsticker and the short-lived IBM Infomarket.

#3: Big Program, Tiny Updates

A 5 meg download updated a 29 meg Java Virtual Machine that originally came with a 300 meg operating system. A FixPak here, a Software Choice there, and all of a sudden you're not so desperate to see Warp 5. It's even happening on the Windows side, since who needs to buy Windows 98 when you can download Internet Explorer and get the same functionality? Market inertia is going to keep the major releases coming for a while, as people expect them. But thanks to the internet, a vendor doesn't have to save up a year or two's worth of changes and release it all as a massive shrinkwrapped update. They can release the updates in pieces, even charging a subscription to access them if necessary. TCP/IP 4.1, Java 1.1, Netscape, whatever. Soon it'll be file systems and GUIs too -- an art already practiced in the Unix world.

#4: Distributed Applications

Raise your hands if you're participating in the RC5 project? Seti@Home? These are all examples of distributed computing, where a large job is broken up across multiple computers to get it done sooner. Autodesk Animator and other high-end modelling programs have been doing this for years already, spreading a big job across a "render farm".

In the future, especially with cheaper bandwidth, there may come a time where half the program you're using is running on your computer, and the other half is running on a server somewhere in the next office, or the next state. A graphics application that passes an image you're working on to a server, so it may be processed with a plug-in or effect that your don't have installed, but have access to through a subscription. Only the part of the image that needs processing is sent, and only the pixels that have changed are sent back.

#5: Broken-up applications

The modern word processor is a bloated, fat beast with features you will never use in its lifetime. In addition to making the program slower, the extra widgets can give the user the feeling that they must be used, slowing down productivity as they spend the time learning them -- only to find they're not useful to their work after all. But with technologies like JavaBeans, 80% of those features can be left on the server, downloaded only when they're actually called on. Throw in a cache, and popular features load quickly.

#6: Remote Control

X-Windows users have been doing this for so long they laugh whenever someone speaks in awe of Citrix WinFrame, or other technologies that let you control a program remotely, yet interact with it as if it were running on the local machine. This method is unlikely to be used outside corporate LANs for a while, but you never know. It's entirely possible that home users will begin using software run remotely this way too, with services provided by their ISP, phone or cable company.

Making It Happen

I started this column after a conversation with a friend who was convinced the next millennia would bring applications so large they must be distributed on five CD ROMs and take 300 megs of hard drive space for a minimum install. And just for the sake of disagreeing with him (which is something I enjoy immensely) I said he was wrong and began listing all the reasons why. My bet is that even if some of the above trends don't work out, enough of the rest will.

Especially with the HTML and HTML hybrids, the definition of "application" is going to get fuzzier and fuzzier. But bandwidth can only get larger, RAM can only get cheaper, chips can only get faster, Java and HTML (XML?) can only get better. All of the components needed to make it happen are happening, and all of the companies needed to shift their weight are shifting. IBM's done it with Warp and you'll most likely see all updates come in pieces, as they're developed, rather than being held back for months or years until everything else is ready. Warp 5 might come, by that name, but there'll be even less incentive to upgrade than there was with Warp 4.

And chances are that many of the applications on your shelf will be replaced by ones that are free, or paid by subscription, that are advertiser-supported, and that install the instant they run. And the only really important program on your system will be the web browser.

Are you cleaning space on your hard drive for the next batch 'o bigguns, or waiting for www.office-suite.com? Talk to me in our Hypernews appli... um... forum.

* * *

Chris Wenham is the Senior Editor of OS/2 e-Zine! -- a promotion from Assistant Editor which means his parking spot will now be wide enough to keep his bicycle and a trailer.

Copyright © 1998 - Falcon Networking ISSN 1203-5696