NET-Install, from 20/20 Software Inc., allows software to be distributed over the Internet. It combines downloading, decompression and installation into a single step which is accomplished from within a browser. NET-Install currently supports Netscape Navigator 2.0 and above by way of plug-in technology and Internet Explorer 3.0 using Microsoft's ActiveX technology.
The product is intended for anyone wishing to publish software on the Internet. It makes it easy for end users to install the software on their machines without having to go through the usual steps of download, decompression and installation. It is also suitable for use on corporate Intranets. On the client side, all types of Windows operating systems are supported, including Windows 3.x, 95 and NT. On the server-side, NET-Install supports any standard Web server platform including Windows NT, UNIX or Macintosh.
The NET-Install software that I received for review did not include the ActiveX component so I'll focus on the support for Navigator first and cover the support for Explorer later.
Installation and Documentation
NET-Install comes on a single diskette and includes a manual which covers all aspects of using the product. The installed software includes the Publisher's Toolkit and the NET-Install Netscape Navigator Plug-Ins. The Publisher's Toolkit comprises three separate programs, which you can use to build your software distribution set:
QuickBuild is the program that allows you to visually create a configuration file which is the text form of an installation file. The MAKEINS program is used to compile the configuration file into the installation file in binary format. The installation file determines the characteristics of the installation routine that you create for your end users. PC-Shrink can be used for file compression and is optional. It would be nice to see these three applications combined into a single IDE in a future release of NET-Install.
Creating a NET-Install Installation
There are four steps involved in creating a software distribution set using NET-Install:
Registering The Installation File With The Web Server
- Register the installation file extension (INS) with the Web server
- The end-user needs to download and install the plug-in
- Create an installation file for your software distribution set
- Create a Web page that references the installation file
This step is merely a matter of registering the MIME type with the Web server, a processwith which all webmasters are most familiar. The particular MIME type for NET-Install is:
Creating the Installation File
In addition to using QuickBuild to create your configuration files, you can also use notepad or another text editor to edit your configuration files directly. NET-Install includes a series of commands that you can use to determine the manner in which your software is installed. For example, the BEGINGROUP / ENDGROUP commands are used to provide the end-user with a selection list of groups of files to be installed. The command set appeared to be quite extensive and should cover almost all requirements for a custom installation program. Some of the things that you can do within your installation routine include prompting for end user information, creating Windows groups and icons, updating the registry, checking for adequate system resources for the installation, password-authorization, automatic uninstall, display of "readme" files and checking version numbers of DLL's, VBX's and OCX's. Another suggestion for the next release of NET-Install would be to add more of these commands into the QuickBuild application so that more complex installation routines can be created without having to delve into the manual and discover the syntax for these commands.
Installing The Plug-In Files
In order for an end-user to be able to run the NET-Install software and automatically install software from the Internet, they need to have the NET-Install plug-ins installed on their machine. The plug-ins act as the installation engine which drives the download and installation once the user initiates the process. The plug-ins are supplied in both 16-bit and 32-bit format and should be installed in the C:\Program Files\Netscape\Navigator\Program\plugins folder.
The best way to allow end-users to obtain the plug-ins is to include a link to the 20/20 Web site as follows: http://www.twenty.com/Pages/NI/NIPI.shtml. From here they can download the appropriate plug-in as required. They may download either the 16 or 32-bit plug-in (104 and 138KB respectively) and install it themselves or they can download the automatic NET-Install plug-in set-up program. This program will install the appropriate plug-in automatically. This program is named NPINST.EXE and is 544KB in size.
Creating The Web Page
The Web page which launches the installation routine should have an anchor tag which references the installation file, as in the following example:
<BODY>Click on the software that you want installed:
<A HREF="basic.ins">Basic Sample </a>
<A HREF="typical.ins">Typical Sample </a>
<A HREF="super.ins">Super Sample </a>
After installing the product, I found that I was able to create installation routines quickly and easily and that the installation operation performed smoothly from within the Netscape browser. Figure 1 shows a sample installation running in Netscape Navigator 3.0.
Support for Internet Explorer 3.0
One drawback to the above installation technique is that the end user requires that the be plug-in files installed on their machine prior to using NET-Install. To address this, 20/20 has come up with another solution which uses ActiveX technology and requires no client-side software except the Internet Explorer browser.
To develop a NET-Install software distribution set for users with Explorer as their browser, you follow the same basic steps as outlined above for the Navigator users. The only difference is that you need to add some code to your HTML page which references the INS script (and you don't need to load the plug-in, of course).
Here's an example:
<PARAM NAME="Script" VALUE="/path/to/my.ins">
<PARAM NAME="Label" VALUE="Install My Demo">
<PARAM NAME="Bitmap" VALUE="path/to/mybutton.bmp">
<PARAM NAME="BitmapSel" VALUE="path/to/mybuttonsel.bmp">
This is for <a HREF="/path/to/my.ins">Netscape 2 users</a>
This example references the NET-Install ActiveX component from the 20/20 Software site at http://www.twenty.com/netinst.cab.
Alternatively, you can download this component and place it on your own Web server. Using ActiveX will relieve the user from having to install a plug-in and is therefore a considerable advantage if your end-users are inexperienced.
I found NET-Install to be a useful product and one which I may well take advantage of on my own Web site. While the plug-in solution has its limitations due to the requirement for the NET-Install plug-in to be pre-loaded on the end-users machine, I particularly like the ActiveX solution which is detailed on 20/20's Web site. I'm not sure if 20/20 plans to do this but including this ActiveX solution in the next release of the product would be a smart move.
It also automates the installation process of software downloaded from a Web site and supports 16 and 32-bit installations. ActiveX support for Internet Explorer 3.0 is available on the Web site
The combination of the NET-Install software with their informative Web site and use of ActiveX technology makes this product a great solution for today's organizations wishing to perform software distribution on the Internet or over a Corporate Intranet.
The only disadvantage is that it only supports Netscape version 2.0 or later and Microsoft Explorer 3.0 and later. The plug-in must be pre-installed on the end-user's machine.
About the Author
Nick Evans is a Senior Associate with Coopers & Lybrand Consulting in Dallas, specializing in client/server and Internet consulting for Fortune 500 clients. He's a Certified PowerBuilder Developer and Microsoft Certified Professional and writes for several computer industry magazines. Nick is the author of an upcoming book from Powersoft Press on Internet application development using PowerBuilder 5.0.
He can be reached on CompuServe at 102604,3142