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Mastering Internet Explorer 4’s Active Desktop

With the release of Internet Explorer 4, Microsoft has changed the way your Windows 95 Desktop works. The new Active Desktop – or True Web Integration, as Microsoft calls it – gives you a taste of Windows 98 right now.

The goal of True Web Integration is to blur the line between your computer and the Internet. Why should locating a file on your hard disk be so different from locating a Web page or file on the Internet? Why should you single-click hyperlinks but have to double-click Desktop icons and folders? Why should navigating files and folders be so different from navigating the Web?

Microsoft asked all these questions when it started designing the next version of Windows.

The marriage of Internet and Operating System

When Windows 95 was released, Microsoft was yet to come to grips with the growing importance of the Internet. By the beginning of 1996, however, the company realised that the Internet was not just important, it was rapidly becoming central to the future of computing. With this knowledge came the realisation that the two key software components everyone would need – operating system and browser – worked in entirely different ways.

So the company set to work to make Windows 98 more browser-like. The way to do that was to integrate the browser with the operating system. In the meantime, many of the same goals could be achieved by getting the next version of its browser to sink its hooks into Windows 95 and infuse the operating system with browser functionality from without.

The result: the combination of Internet Explorer 4 and Windows 95 gives you much the same interface as you’ll find when Windows 98 ships.

Active Desktop in action

Figure 1. The Active Desktop in action.

Activating integration

In early preview versions of IE 4, installing the browser automatically installed the Active Desktop features as well as all the other True Web Integration features. After a lot of feedback from users confused by the one-click world they’d suddenly encountered, Microsoft decided to go the reverse route when it released the final product. Now, when you install IE 4 many of the Web Integration features are turned off. You have to turn them on yourself to get the new features.

Turning full Web Integration on is easy:

  1. Open any folder and choose Folder Options from the View Menu.
  2. In the General Tab of the Folder Options dialog box, select Web Style and click OK.
  3. The first time you do this Windows will check whether you want to use single-click or double-click. Choose single-click to get the full flavour of Web Integration.

(Note: You must make sure you download or install the Windows Desktop Update when you first setup IE 4. Otherwise the Active Desktop features won’t be available to you. You can always re-run the Setup program to add the Desktop Update features if you already have the program installed.)

You can also turn the Active Desktop on and off by right-clicking any blank space on your Desktop, selecting Active Desktop from the pop-up menu, and then select View As Web Page from the cascading menu. Using this technique only affects the display of Web-style information on your Desktop, it doesn’t affect your folder views.

Customising your Desktop

You can change the appearance of your Desktop further by selecting a different wallpaper (the default is pretty distracting) and turning various Desktop components on or off.

To change your wallpaper and Desktop components:

  1. Right-click the Desktop in a blank space and choose Properties from the pop-up menu to display the Display Properties dialog.
  2. Click the Background tab and select a different background. To keep things simple, you can scroll to the top of the list and choose None, and then click the Appearance tab and choose the colour you like most for your Desktop.
  3. Once you’ve done that, click the new Web tab. The View My Active Desktop As A Web Page option should already be selected. Beneath that you’ll see a list of Desktop components – probably only the Internet Explorer Channel Bar at this stage. You can remove the Channel Bar from your Desktop by clearing the checkmark beside its name in the list.

What makes it ‘active’?

Desktop components are ‘active’ because they can be updated by feeds from the Internet. They can include push channel content, HTML code, ActiveX components and other items. You can add new items to your Desktop by making sure you’re connected to the Internet and then clicking the New button in the Display Properties, Web tab. You’ll be prompted to visit the Active Desktop gallery on the Web – a great source of pre-built components for your Desktop.

You’ll find you can populate your Desktop with stock tickers, news feeds, search buttons and all sorts of flotsam and jetsam. Just remember that to use many of these items you need to be online and connected to the Web. You also need to remember to leave room for your work on your Desktop!

Adding active components

An easy way to add Desktop components is to connect to a site using Internet Explorer. Once connected:

  1. Right-click-and-drag the little icon that appears in the left-hand side of the Address box in the browser.
  2. Drop the icon on the Desktop and a menu will appear, offering to create a shortcut to the site or to create an Active Desktop component. If you choose the latter, you’ll be presented with a dialog box asking if you want to subscribe to the site, and letting you customise the subscription. By customising the subscription you can choose how and when the component is updated, and whether your computer should connect automatically to download new content.

Obtaining pre-fab components

Figure 2: Get pre-fab Desktop components from Microsoft’s Active Desktop Gallery.

New clicks

Once you’ve activated Web Integration, all sorts of interesting things happen. You’ll notice that items on your Desktop are now underlined. Single-click an icon and it will open.

This new clicking style takes quite a bit of getting used to. Not only do single-clicks replace double-clicks on the Desktop and in folders, but you’ll also find that simply moving your mouse cursor over an item in the active window will highlight that item. Watch out for this – it’s very easy to accidentally run programs or send items to the recycle bin when that was not your intention.

If you find items on your Desktop are not highlighted when you move your cursor over them, click in a vacant spot on the Desktop to ensure it’s the active window, and then try again.

Selecting multiple items

Selecting multiple icons is particularly strange. Try it:

  1. Open a folder containing a number of icons.
  2. Point to one icon (don’t click!) to select it.
  3. Now hold down the Shift key and move the mouse cursor over adjoining items – all the items between the first one you selected and the last one you point to will be highlighted.
  4. To select non-contiguous items, point to the first item then hold down the Ctrl key and point to other items.
  5. To deselect an item, keep the Ctrl key depressed while pointing to the item.
  6. You can also select multiple adjoining icons in the old manner by click in the space beside an icon and dragging the mouse cursor. You’ll see a box appear enclosing all the icons. When you release the mouse button, all those items will be selected.

You can no longer click, pause, then click again to rename an icon. Instead, you’ll need to right-click an icon and choose Rename from the pop-up menu.

Choosing between the old way and the new

Take your time getting used to these new techniques. At first it can be pretty uncomfortable, but with time you’re likely to grow to love them and come to resent the exertion of double-clicking when it’s required. And unfortunately, it is required: IE 4 doesn’t change the behaviour within Save and Open dialog boxes in your applications, so you’ll have to revert to double-clicking there.

If you find you hate single-click and want to toss it out, open any folder, choose Folder Options from the View Menu, click the Custom, Based On Settings You Choose option and click the Settings button. You’ll find an option to reset your folders to double-click.

New Start Menu options

Internet Explorer 4 changes your Start Menu. Open it and you’ll see there’s a new option, called Favorites. Now you have direct access to all the Web pages you add to your Favorites list, without even having to open Internet Explorer itself. Select a Web page from the Favorites Menu and IE will be launched automatically. The Favorites Menu also includes any other items you’ve added to your Favorites folder, including files, folders and Web channels.

The Settings option on the Start Menu has also changed. It now sports options to change your Active Desktop and Folder settings, so you can adjust Web Integration from there.

The Find option, too, has been enhanced, with options to locate people in your address book or find pages on the Internet.

Moving Start Menu items

You can easily add items to the Start Menu yourself by dragging any icon onto the Start button. Doing so will place a shortcut to that item onto the Start Menu.

While this, in itself, is not a new feature, the way you can move things around on the Start Menu is. Open the Programs cascading menu, for example, and click-and-drag any item from its current position to any other position on the Start Menu. In this way, you can retrieve an often-used program that’s buried three or four menus deep and place it slap bang on the initial Start Menu.

Turbo-charged Taskbar

One of the areas most enhanced by Web Integration is the Taskbar.

You’ll notice there’s a new section containing a group of icons directly to the right of the Start button. This area is called the Quick Launch bar. If you’ve installed the complete IE 4, it’ll be populated with four icons: an Internet Explorer icon, an Outlook Express icon, a Show Desktop icon, and a View Channels icon.

Adding items to the Quick Launch bar

You can add items to the Quick Launch bar in the same way you add them to the Start Menu: click-and-drag an icon onto the bar. Doing so will place a shortcut to the folder, file, Web link or program you’ve placed there. This change is permanent – the new icon will remain in the Quick Launch bar even when you reboot.

To remove an item from the Quick Launch bar, right-click it and choose delete from the pop-up menu.

You can also rearrange any item in the Quick Launch bar by dragging-and-dropping it in its new position.

If you add a number of items with the same icon (such as folders) to the Quick Launch bar, let your cursor rest over the item for a second and a tooltip will pop up with a description of the item.

Taskbar program buttons

You will have grown accustomed to the program buttons which appear in the Taskbar whenever you launch a program. Now, they behave somewhat differently.

It used to be that you would click a program button once to switch to that program. If you clicked the button of the currently active program, however, nothing would happen.

With Web Integration, the program buttons work like switches: click an inactive program button to switch to that program; click the button of the active program to minimise that program and show the windows behind. It’s amazing how such a tiny trick can save a lot of time.

New Desktop toolbars

These new features make the Taskbar a much more interesting place. But the true power of the new Taskbar is hidden: right-click on any vacant space on the Taskbar (if there’s no vacant space available, right-click on the time display at the right-hand end). The pop-up menu that appears contains a new item called Toolbars.

Internet Explorer 4 comes with four toolbars which you can add to the Desktop. The Quick Launch toolbar is already enabled. In addition, you’ll find a Desktop, Address and Links toolbar, and the option to create your own toolbars.

The Desktop toolbar creates an icon for every item that appears on your Desktop. In this way, if you have a program window maximised, you can still access any Desktop item with a single click.

The Address toolbar gives you an Internet Explorer address box right there on your Taskbar. This is a terrific time saver: instead of having to launch IE and have it connect to your default home site before navigating to your ultimate destination, you can simply type an address into the Address toolbar and IE will be launched automatically, taking you directly to the site.

Similarly, the Links toolbar is like having part of IE built right into the Taskbar. It displays the Links you have on your Internet Explorer Links bar (which you can easily customise by dragging Web links straight onto the bar).

Arranging your toolbars

Of course, if you open up all these toolbars, you’ll clog up your Taskbar. There are two things you can do about this.

First, if you double-click on the horizontal mark at the left of a toolbar, the toolbar will snap shut or open up fully. Alternatively, you can click-and-drag any of the toolbars and float them anywhere on your Desktop, or dock them to any edge of the screen. If you float a toolbar, you’ll probably want to resize it (click-and-drag any edge of the toolbar), as the default shapes are out of whack.

You can also, as of old, increase the size of the Taskbar itself by clicking-and-dragging its top edge.

IE or WE?

To view the most dramatic changes wrought by True Web Integration, open any folder. Take a good look – is this Windows Explorer or Internet Explorer you have open? The toolbar along the top looks like a cross between a browser toolbar and a normal folder toolbar. There are back and forward buttons for navigation through your folders, plus cut, copy, and paste, undo, delete and views buttons.

The menus along the top, too, combine different types of options. From the Go Menu, for instance, you can jump to your Home Page, open Outlook Express, make an Internet call (using NetMeeting), or search the Web. There’s also another Favorites Menu. Choose one of the Explorer Bar options from the View Menu and you can place a search, favorites, history or channels bar down the left-hand side of your folder window.

Decidedly browser-like is the Address box immediately below the toolbar. Items in the folder are underlined as with hyperlinks, and there are background images in the folder: a large folder icon beside the name of the folder. Down the left-hand side – if you have the folder sized large enough -- is an information pane. It’s markedly different from anything you’re used to.

Move your cursor over an icon in the folder. Information about the icon is displayed down the left-hand side: the item’s full name, the type of document it is, its size and the date it was last modified. If the item is a graphic file or HTML file, a thumbnail image of its contents is generated and displayed in the information pane.

The ever-present Address Box

More than almost any other element, the Address box emphasises how much True Web Integration blurs the line between your computer and the Internet. In the Address box you’ll see the full pathname of the folder.

For instance, if you’ve opened a folder called Downloads located directly on your Windows Desktop, you’ll see:


in the Address box.

Click the down-arrow at the right side of the Address box to see an almost traditional style listing of your system’s drives.

Type a path to another folder in the Address box, such as c:\my documents (unlike Internet addresses, you don’t have to worry about case) to display the contents of that folder.

Now, type an Internet address into the Address box and press Enter. Up comes Internet Explorer (if you’re not online, you’ll be connected) and you’re transported to the site.

Click the down-arrow at the right of the Address box now and you’ll see it contains a list of recently visited links, plus the ‘addresses’ of folders you’ve opened recently. Just as you can type an Internet address into a folder Address box, you can type the name of a folder on your hard disk in the IE browser Address box.

Address box shortcuts

As you’d expect, you can use the AutoComplete feature which is part of the normal IE 4 browser in your folder Address box too: type the first few characters of a Web address or local folder name and IE will complete it for you if you’ve visited it recently.

And for those of you who can still remember those good ol’ DOS days, try this one: in a folder Address box type .. (that is, two full stops or periods) and press Enter. Remember that DOS shorthand? It opens the folder immediately above your current folder.

Folders the way you want

You’ll find your folders are astoundingly customisable. The View Menu lets you change the look of the toolbars and open different toolbar and Explorer Bars. You can also, of course, switch between the usual large icon, small icon, list and detail views.

The Folder Options option, as we’ve seen earlier, lets you switch between Web-style folders, Windows 95 ‘classic’ style, or customised settings. You’ll also see a Customize This Folder option on the View Menu. This one’s particularly interesting.

Customising folders (Click the thumbnail to see a full-sized screenshot.)

Figure 3. Turn True Web Integration on and your folders are transformed.

Choose Customize This Folder to display a Wizard with three options. The first choice is to create your own HTML file (remember, under True Web Integration your Desktop and folders act as Web pages) or edit the existing default HTML file to create your very own folder style. The second option is to choose a different background for your folder. The final option lets you restore your folder to the original look – very important if you edit the standard HTML file and make a mess of it in the process!

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