Agencies hail browsers for information access

At the Department of Health and Human Services Bill Boyle financial systems analyst for the Program Support Center appreciates a key benefit of World Wide Web browsers: They reduce the need to teach communications processes so he can focus on teaching how to use key applications.The distinction is crucial to Boyle who has developed and currently administers a travel management application running on Software AG's Adabas that enables 150 000 users to access travel information do expense reports find per diem expense rates and seek approvals - all via their Netscape Communications Corp. Navigator browsers. Before the system was put on the Web Boyle spent most of his time educating nontechnical users in the intricacies of accessing the application.

First developed in 1989 on an IBM Corp. mainframe the travel management system did not work because of the complexity of trying to teach large numbers of users how to access and use an esoteric mainframe-based application. It was moved to a local-area network environment to improve usability Boyle explained but the instability of the LAN made it difficult and frustrating for most users to understand whenever requests for access were not completed.

Now via the Web he said these problems have virtually disappeared. "Using a browser has made communications a painless process " he said. Because of this browsers have become a key underpinning of the federal government's strategy to put more federal information into the hands of the public.

Richard Kellett division director for emerging IT applications in the Office of Governmentwide Policy for the General Services Administration said "Browsers are now the tools that integrate systems and platforms across organizations integrating dissimilar systems and linking users of all kinds."

A Web browser's primary function is to be a client to the Internet allowing users to navigate to different locations on the Internet and download Hypertext Markup Language documents and images to their client machines. Today browsers also integrate other Internet-related functions including e-mail newsgroups chat rooms and File Transfer Protocol support all into the same interface.

The two most popular browsers are Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer. But Netscape is far ahead with slightly more than 70 percent of the browser market according to industry analysts. In fact every federal agency contacted for this story is using a version of Netscape Navigator. Analysts say Netscape's browser products generally edge Microsoft on performance but recent enhancements to Internet Explorer are closing that gap. And Microsoft now leads the way in the ability to tie its browser into Microsoft operating systems and applications.

Room for Improvement

Federal users say that while browsers they have used have served them well there is always room for improvement. Integrating browsers with other applications and keeping ease of use a top priority are both critical issues. Vic Powell Webmaster for the Agriculture Department said ease of use cannot be overlooked especially as more advanced graphical and video features and formats are added to Web browsers.

The USDA uses Netscape now having started several years ago with Mosaic a browser originally developed by researchers and now offered by Spyglass Inc. One step toward improving ease of use would be to add an Adobe Portable Document Format reader to Netscape's Navigator according to Powell. Adobe's PDF technology makes it possible to distribute fully formatted documents to users who do not have the software originally used to create the document.

"Users currently must surf the Web download the reader from Adobe and translate the document so it can be downloaded onto a client machine"- a far too difficult process for many he said.

He said improving ease of use also should include enabling access to documents in legacy formats. "Many of our reports at USDA are in Lotus [Development Corp.'s]1-2-3. It would be great if users could click on a report and the browser would allow them to scan through the document and download it if desired " Powell said.

At GSA Netscape is the browser of choice but many still use Mosaic as well according to Kellett. An emerging area of concern is how well browser technologies enable interaction with database management systems. "More and more we need some sort of flat-file database to interact with the Web so people who access the GSA's Web page can do form searches and also so users can export information from their e-mail messages for example and manipulate them in an Oracle [Corp.] or Microsoft Access database. "I find the need for database integration is far more important than interactive conferencing push technology and other Web browser improvements currently in the works " he said.

In addition Kellett said doing e-mail via browsers considered a primary function of any advanced browser technology is still difficult because there is no easy way to move e-mail addresses from one program such as Lotus' cc:Mail and pull them into a browser-based e-mail system. "This makes management a difficult challenge Kellett said.

For its part Netscape is upping the ante by offering a host of improvements through its new Communicator program which started shipping this month. Some of the most eagerly awaited improvements for federal users include:

* Enriched e-mail features that will enable the use of a wider range of protocols the posting of Web pages in e-mail messages message encryption and the use of digital signatures.

* A new feature called Collabra which will provide threaded discussions via e-mail so users can read and respond to messages in a discussion group format.

* Collaborative browsing which enables one user to type in a Uniform Resource Locator and bring that page up on another user's e-mail system.

* A full push-technology client which will download pertinent information to users for later reading off-line.

A Professional Edition of Communicator will offer enhanced calendaring a 3270 emulator from IBM for users working on terminals and an administrative toolkit so information systems departments can pre-configure Communicator for deployment and customize toolbars. The Professional Edition will also check user systems for upgrades and complete those without user intervention if desired.

"The federal government is continually being asked to do more with less " said John Menkart Washington D.C. regional sales manager for Netscape. "This technology enables federal users to provide a higher degree of service across existing client platforms and servers. With a powerful browser they are realizing they don't need to buy new hardware or upgrade their software to provide new services."

Meanwhile Microsoft will continue to make its Internet Explorer browser run seamlessly with other Microsoft products providing at least some of the integration federal users now crave. Via Internet Explorer (IE) 4.0 due to ship later this summer "users will gain true Web integration between the browser and operating system " said Chris Barker architectural engineer for Microsoft Federal.

Barker maintains that Microsoft's goal is to refine browser/operating system integration continually. And while IE is a relative latecomer available only since the summer of 1995 Barker claims IE has made some headway among federal agencies. The Army the Navy the Air Force and the U.S. Postal Service are among Microsoft Federal's recent wins he said.

Highlights of IE4.0 are:

* A new user interface that makes the desktop into a browser with single-click access to Web pages.

* Push technology designed to allow users to subscribe to certain Web sites and have information downloaded to their systems whenever the page is updated.

* Improved database access via data binding which is designed to cache information so that during a search for example 20 pages of information would be held in memory rather than just one.

* Upgraded e-mail features to enable users to send Web pages to each other.

While a majority of agencies may be using Netscape Navigator today many seem to want the integration and ease of use that Microsoft's Internet Explorer - an integrated browser/operating system that links database and word processing applications with enhanced browsing features - now promises.

"Web browser customers are faced today with a trade-off between improvements that may help them work better together and the need to integrate their browsers into their existing software environment " said Geoffrey Bock a senior analyst with the Patricia Seybold Group in Boston.

Internet Explorer on the Move

While Netscape's products seem to be more forward-looking in terms of exploiting the network potential of the Web Microsoft has paid more attention to integrating its browser technology within the existing infrastructure of Microsoft applications Bock explained.

And analysts say Microsoft's market dominance and continual improvements to Internet Explorer cast a shadow on Netscape's ability to hold its large lead in the browser market over the next few years.

David Yockelson vice president for the Meta Group in Stamford Conn. said the Microsoft juggernaut will be difficult for Netscape to hold off. "Microsoft has the operating system and desktop services via Windows 95 and NT that make its strategy of remaking the operating system into a browser a strong challenger " he said.

Meanwhile despite the performance edge that Netscape's Communicator product is likely to provide users Yockelson said most large organizations have not made a commitment to Java or the Object Request Broker (ORB) technology at the heart of Netscape's browser software. Instead "many users are waiting to see if or when Netscape will strengthen its partnerships with Oracle IBM and Javasoft " he said.

Ultimately the Web browser wars will fade in importance. Browsers increasingly will become universal as the user interface for most client systems but they also increasingly will become generic commodities Yockelson said. The biggest challenge users face in the future will be how to manage these browser-based operating systems he said. Right now federal agencies much like corporations want scalable manageable services for messaging and browser technologies are struggling to keep up with those needs.

DePompa is a free-lance writer based in Germantown Md. She can be reached at bdepompa@aol.com.

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At A Glance

Status: Web browsers have become a key technology for giving users access to information.

Issues:Browsers are popular because they are user-friendly but agencies want even more functionality built in.

Outlook: Very good. The major vendors are ramping up their products with such new features as push technology.

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