Microsoft makes play for intranet dominance

Announcements expected this week on shipping dates for several Web server and development products.

Microsoft will continue its relentless pursuit of the Internet this week by trying to convince IS managers that they can build corporate intranets using the company's existing applications and tools.

As part of that effort, Microsoft will roll out beta versions of two software tools intended to ease ActiveX control integration and HTML development for World Wide Web pages.

Microsoft will also update users on its Proxy Server and Merchant Server initiatives for the Internet and outline its plans for Visual Basic 5.0, BackOffice, and thin clients.

Sources say Microsoft will announce a third-quarter ship date for the Microsoft Proxy Server, code-named Catapult. But the ship date for Microsoft Merchant Server, an electronic commerce application, will be moved to next year.

The company is also expected to announce plans for tighter integration of the Internet Information Server with Microsoft BackOffice. Sources also say the company may make announcements about Pegasus, its code name for a thin client operating system that would work on a hand-held computing device.

The beta tools Microsoft will release on its Web site are ActiveX Control Pad, an authoring tool to add ActiveX controls and scripting to a Web page without the need to know Common Gateway Interface programming, and HTML Layout Control, says Greg Leake, product manager at Microsoft, in Redmond, Washington.

"[Control Pad] is the first tool that lets you go out and insert ActiveX controls into a Web page. It makes the process of doing this super simple," Leake says.

HTML Layout Control, an enhancement to Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.0 browser, will help developers control where features are placed in HTML documents.

Both products, due out next quarter, will likely allow HTML programmers to put together more advanced Web pages -- without requiring much programming expertise -- by plugging a library of ActiveX controls in to a Web page.

"Control Pad and Layout Control let someone familiar with HTML move up to the next level rather easily; without these tools you have to jump from knowing HTML to being a full-blown programmer," says Frank Sommer, vice-president of Videosoft Consulting, in Berkeley, California.

HTML Layout Control, which will be integrated into ActiveX Control Panel as well as Explorer, is an implementation of a World Wide Web Consortium draft that extends the HTML Cascading Style Sheet specification, Leake says.

For users, this means more exact placement of Web page components and more layout possibilities, such as transparency and overlapping objects and frames.

Microsoft hopes this latest effort will change how it is viewed in the emerging Internet market.

"They had laughing-stock status eight months ago," says David Smith, Internet analyst with Gartner Group, in Stamford, Connecticut. "Now, they want to be seen as an Internet and intranet company."

"They are beginning to position themselves differently. They aren't defensive any more," says Ira Machefsky, an analyst with Santa Clara, California-based Giga Information Group.

A key component of Microsoft's enterprise Internet and intranet strategy is Visual Basic (VB), which in its next iteration will support ActiveX components and documents.

According to sources, Visual Basic 5.0 will include both a native Windows compiler and a p-code (pseudo-code) interpreted compiler for creating ActiveX components for execution over the Internet, in addition to a user interface patterned after the Visual C++ Developer Studio. The Developer Studio interface will ultimately be the common interface for all Microsoft development tools, according to VB product manager Jon Roskill.

Roskill has confirmed that VB 5.0 would include a p-code compiler, though he stops short of acknowledging plans for a native Windows compiler.

"We will do p-code controls, which, as interpreted code, are somewhat like Java," Roskill says.

Additional performance improvements will result from the fact that all VB 5.0 controls will be generated in the ActiveX framework, which is roughly one-third the size of the OLE control framework, according to Roskill.

(Additional reporting by Cara Cunningham and Ed Scannell.)

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