Web Informant Newsletter #6, November 16, 1995

The news this week is all over the $500 Oracle "Browser Boy" (as Dick Shaffer so aptly put it) -- a screenless browser that can end up in our living rooms. We haven't been briefed by Oracle (and might never, given the relationship between us and their PR folks), but here's one thought: consider the location of your TV, your phone jack and your remote control. If you are fortunate and all three are in the same room, now consider where Browser Boy will sit and how to wire it up. It is going to take a lot more than a terrific price point for this technology to move forward.

Is the web a radio, a movie, or a book?

What this device shows is that people are struggling to categorize the web, and their strain is showing. We've often said that web technology is a lot like radio in the 1920s: station owners are not too sure who is really listening but they are signing up advertisers like crazy, programmers are still feeling around for the best broadcast mechanisms, and standards that are changing fast making for lots of unsure technology that barely works on the best of days. Movies obviously is the metaphor for Java and audio applets and other frilly additions.

So far, we think the best metaphor is that of a book: something that you'd like to have as a reference source, entertaining when you need it, portable (well, if you tote around a laptop), and so full of information that you would rather leave it on your shelf.

We're reminded of so-called "electronic books" that were going to take the world by storm just after that last pen-based revolution that never happened. One of our favorites is a book/disk package called The Electronic Word by Richard Lanham (University of Chicago Press, 1993), ironically about how computers have changed the face of written communications. The book is our favorite counter-example of on-line books. Lanham is an English professor at UCLA and the book comes with a hypercard stack that shows both the power of print and how unsatisfactory reading on the screen can be. Prof. Lanham tried to take us through some of the editing process in the hypercard version, showing before and after passages. Cute, but a very academic tome.

But we still don't want to read stuff on-line, especially dry academic works that contain transcripts of speeches. That is an important design point for webmasters to consider. Many sites are full reference works, and even if we had a spare (and free) T-1, we still wouldn't want to view all that stuff on-screen. Send us a book, or some paper, instead.

Speaking of eliminating paper, look at what Byte magazine is trying to do with their Virtual Press Room. While it still is pretty new, the idea is somewhat intriguing: have vendors send their press releases electronically, so editors don't have to plough through paper. But how about a step further in the interest of saving trees: sending in both the links to the vendor's own websites and whatever keywords are needed. Now that's how the best reference works get started.

What separates good books from bad is good indexing and great tables of contents. We use both in books to find our way around: the latter more for reference, the former more for determining interest and where to enter its pages. So how many websites have you visited lately that have either, and have done a reasonable job on both? Not many.

One place where this gets real blurry is the HTML-front end to CD- ROMs. Cisco has had their UniverCD, a combination of CD-ROM (for Mac, Windows and Unix, I might add, and good for them too) and website. The CD-ROM comes with a copy of Mosaic and Verity's search engine, and it contains links to their website for more up-to-date information, the latest router microcode, and such. It is a brilliant use of the two interfaces, and one that I am sure we will see more of as time goes on. And yes, it does have a table of contents on both the CD and the website, although somewhat dissatisfying.

Novell has its Market Messenger CD ROM, which doesn't come with a browser but does have a way to use your browser to connect to its own website. It doesn't use HTML to display its content, though. We are sure that there are many other projects in the works that will combine CD ROMS and HTML. Seems like a trendlet in the making. While the notion is somewhat appealing, particularly if you want to load up your CD with all sorts of bandwidth-hungry graphics, realize that this is more the book than the movie metaphor for the web: a reference work that requires a superior table of contents and a solid index. If we want to watch movies, we'll go to Blockbuster or the Mallplex 24.

Awards to CMP's Techweb, PowerBook Army (good news); Infoworld Electric, UB World (bad news)

Those of you that follow our web site (by the way, it is located here) know we periodically give out awards, sometimes even seriously Here they are for this week. You can check out our previous award winners as well as previous essays here.

First is Infoworld's Electric website. To its credit it has a very nice table of contents, displayed in an image map that you can click to navigate around the site. But, you'll need the map, because navigating the new site is a real bear and many of the internal links didn't work when we tried them earlier this week. Electric has the ability to search back issues, something important for a magazine. However, it is far from complete and almost none of the back issue archive is available yet. Finally, what is really frustrating was the frequency of authentication dialogs we hit as we kept surfing around one morning. Granted, you want to be able to track who is visiting, but after typing our ID and password for the sixth time we gave up. For these reasons, they get this week's Lost in Web.space award (bad news). (So you know, we write for them, but had nothing to do with their site.)

Speaking of registration, check out CMP's Techweb site, also redesigned this week (must have something to do with that other trade show in Vegas that isn't Interop, I guess). Techweb, started a year ago, just keeps getting better and better. The latest innovation is to bring on-line six "gurus" that head their own discussion groups. Instead of going through the draconian registration process that Infoworld has, you merely type in your name and email address when it is time to post a message. Sure, you could probably fake these if you really wanted to -- but so what? The site contains so much stuff now that we can't do it justice, but we do want to recognize the good work being done. For that reason, we give it our Be.Here.Now award (good news) for solid coverage of breaking news, which is one of the many reasons to visit the site frequently.

Speaking of Techweb gurus, check out what Bill Frezza has done on his portion of cyberguru-hood: like us, his rolodex (of contacts in the world of wireless) is available for all to browse, and in nice Netscape tables too. These tables could get hairy as their population increases, but it a worthy idea nonetheless. By the way, if you do follow this link above, you'll get a directory listing rather than a page. This is a problem with the way that CMP has set up their site. Honorable mention in the next issue of Web Informant to the first three people who email us the reason(s) why.

Our next award is a hearty Big.Duck to a Japanese site called Power Book Army run by Atsushi Iijama, who also runs an architecture web site by day and has drafted himself as a general in the PBA at night. If you use a PowerBook (as we do), you'll want to spend some time with a very useful and attractive site. Sure, the English is a bit ragged at times, but the intent is clear, and the way software is organized makes it a heck of lot easier than trying to get through to YAIMSA (yet another Info-Mac Sumex archive).

Finally, some housekeeping: if you are reading this email message from us directly, you are on our mailing list. If not, (including viewing the file from our web site) you aren't. Let us know if you want to be removed, add yourself or a friend, or whatever.

David Strom, david@strom.com
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