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This has been the year of the Internet in the world of personal computing, and next year seems certain to be an Internet year as well. As 1997 ends, there is much uncertainty, even a bit of suspense, about what will happen in 1998 in this online realm that has become so central to desktop computing.

Mighty Microsoft, poised to release its new version of Windows, finds itself under a court order that might force it to scrap its entire design of Windows 98. The company had planned to integrate its Internet Explorer browser so completely into its operating system that it would be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

It has already begun to do that with the latest version of the browser, release 4.0, which changes the basic look and feel of Windows 95. With Internet Explorer 4.0 installed, Windows 95 treats the Internet, and particularly the World Wide Web, as just one more source of data, like a hard disk, CD-ROM drive, or office network.

But the Justice Department, which seems to regard Microsoft as an evil empire, has gotten a federal judge in Washington to order the company to detach Internet Explorer from Windows 95, at least temporarily. The effect on the forthcoming new version of the operating system is unclear, but it is at least possible Microsoft will be forced to delay Windows 98 until the legal challenge from Justice is resolved.

The government thinks Microsoft is violating an antitrust agreement reached in 1995 by requiring computer makers, which buy Windows 95 for inclusion with new systems, to also accept Internet Explorer. Justice contends that by giving away Internet Explorer and requiring computer makers to install it with Windows 95, Microsoft is using its monopoly position with the operating system to force feed customers its Web browser, thereby gaining an unfair advantage over competitors, chiefly Netscape.

Microsoft argues that Internet Explorer, far from being just a stand-alone Web browser, is also an integral part of Windows 95, supplying functions that other programs also use. For example, the Windows 95 version of America Online's software uses files that are part of Internet Explorer, to provide access to the Internet for AOL customers. Therefore, argues Microsoft, it is not true that Internet Explorer and Windows 95 are separate and can easily be severed.

But that is what Microsoft has been ordered to do, at least for the time being. The company has responded by offering computer makers three choices. They can take Windows 95 as is, with Internet Explorer included. Or they can take it with Internet Explorer removed, though that will mean it won't perform certain functions, such as those required by America Online. A final option is to take the original, August 1995 version of Windows 95, which did not include Internet Explorer at all.

The Justice Department thinks that's no choice at all, that no computer company in its right mind would accept either a crippled version of Windows 95, or one that is more than two years out of date, and that Microsoft will end up continuing to do what the court was trying to stop -- effectively forcing computer makers to take Internet Explorer in order to get Windows 95. Justice wants the judge to hold Microsoft in contempt. There will be a hearing in January, but this whole dispute is likely to take much longer to resolve.

In the meantime, modem technology is pushing the outer limits of what ordinary phone lines can do. Two competing forms of technology to double, in effect, the speed of today's 28.8 modems are vying for customer acceptance. They are Rockwell's "K56Flex" and U.S. Robotics' "x2." U.S. Robotics, of course, uses x2 in its modems, but many other modem makers, including Hayes and Practical Peripherals, are using K56 Flex, which appears to have an edge.

The key to success here is to win the support of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), since modem buyers will choose whatever high-speed modem their ISP supports. This technology seems more a temporary improvement than a final solution to the problem of slow data movement on the Internet.

We will have more about this in a future column, but tests of two different K56 modems suggest that while they make a noticeable difference, it is rare to actually achieve data speeds of even 50K per second, let alone 56K. Connections of between 44K and 48K are more common, and the same inexplicable pauses in transmission occur as with slower modems.

An ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) connection may be the ultimate solution, but the cost and availability of ISDN service is not yet at a level to bring it within reach of the computing masses. 1998 may bring new developments here as well. We'll see.

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