Happy Holidays from Web Informant.

I am in a sour mood this morning, which is too bad because this is our first snow day in two years and my little town looks like something outta Currier & Ives. My day started with a mammoth download of email. My problem? Downloads of some new beta software. All 2.4 megabytes that some misguided marcom person was so inconsiderate to email me.

I don't do downloads well, and that is the subject of today's essay. At the web conference in Boston last week, the seven words most often spoken to me were "You can download it from our site." I'm considering asking George Carlin if he wants to change his routine.

Again: I don't want to download software. It wastes my time, my bandwidth, and the bandwidth of people near me on the net. I usually don't get the right version or have to download something again because my line drops. Call me a dinosaur but I want the physical disks.

For those of you that still don't understand my gripe, consider the average day here at Strom, Inc. I am on first-name terms with the delivery guys from FedEx and UPS, not to mention my US Postal carrier. They are great guys: they bring me new products almost daily. It is like Christmas year-round. I probably get from 10-20 new products each week, and that's just the ones that I really want.

Now consider my bandwidth: I currently have a 14.4 dial-up line to several providers. If the Nynex Santa will visit my office, I might have ISDN in another year or two. (But that's for another essay.)

But I'm not complaining, and indeed this steady stream of stuff coming in the door is how I like it: if Mr. or Ms. Vendor has to go through the trouble to send me a shrink-wrapped (or sometimes beta) product, chances are they have at least one of the following in place:

  1. a press reviews or product loan program, where you track who writes about what products and keep them up to date,
  2. a quality control system to ensure that before you ship you have some understanding of the number of bugs and their severity,
  3. a marketing group that keys their collaterals and programs, press tours and launches to the release of said product, and so forth.
But the web has destroyed all of this in one click of the mouse button. And it is a damn shame. Not because I am selfishly interested in keeping this system alive. Well, maybe I am. But because the system encouraged a certain level of rigor and a certain level of control over product quality.

In the old days -- that is, before URLs were on buses and billboards, beta testing was a difficult and often little- appreciated professional calling. You found a random group of your most vocal end users (well, maybe they found you) and gave them a bunch of disks ahead of the commercial release, in hopes that they would find things your engineers didn't.

This was (once) an honorable profession, and indeed I continue to make a good living doing consulting to those vendors that want to spend a little extra time crafting their products before they throw them over the wall. (One of my more memorable beta tests was looking at Intel's network management products at the Guggenheim Museum. We spent a lot of time trying to debug it, and ultimately helped the product a great deal. But I digress.)

That was then. Now we have download fever. "Just grab the latest files from our web site," you say. My problem is that this method is like the Tammany Hall voting method: download early and download often, indeed just download continuously if your bandwidth allows.

No need to do "real" beta tests anymore: just put a splash screen with lots of legalese up for a user to click away their rights to safe computing, and voila! You too can become a beta tester for the price of that hours-long download. That's the theory.

This morning's email was the last blow, taking things to a new low. Imagine if the hundreds of vendors I cover started sending me emails of their latest beta: I'd never get any work done. I don't mind paying for my own network connection, but at 14.4 this morning's 2.4 megabyte monster took close to an hour to find its way to my hard disk.

Dan Gillmor, a computer columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, wrote about this coincidentally in his column this week. Dan says "it is getting harder to tell what is a beta product vs. the 'shipping' version. Growing equally tenuous is the distinction between shareware ... and regular software."

I agree with Dan. And while you may think that the user stands to benefit initially from this practice (more software for everyone!), the end result is we have more buggy software and more bandwidth being consumed by people getting version n+1 to fix something or just to keep up with the betas.

Maybe it's because I see the quality of software dropping. The random nature of the 'net has taken over for a more scientific testing process that never really got started at many smaller companies. Yes, it is great that these small guys can spread their software all over creation. But not if the stuff doesn't work.

Maybe I am getting tired of downloading the "code o' the week" (or more frequently, since some folks make their betas fresh daily) and watching that little byte counter slowly creep upwards to several megabytes.

What's the solution? I don't have any fast answers. But in the meantime, if you want me to try out your product, send it to me via the mail. If you really are in a hurry, send it FedEx.

Awards and site keeping

More complete information on this week's awards can be found on my site, I'll just hit the highlights. The coveted Big.Duck goes to Lois Paul and Partners for designing a solid web site for marcom and trade press. You can find stuff easily. There are links to other web-based resources for marcom folks. Info on their clients is well-presented. Other PR-related web sites that opened for business this week, including Fitzgerald's and Cunningham's, don't quite measure up.

And to truly be Lost.In.Web.Space, take a look at Citibank's web site. Hard to find stuff, no way to email the bank, and YAWBB (yet another web-based billboard). They don't get it.

More bad news from a company called Zygon. They have the most offensive Web-based scam I've seen with an entire website setup to sell a device that no one needs. I won't give you the link here in email, but these guys definitely get a Web.Feet.

Those of you getting these missives and don't want to continue, or if you want to receive them directly and aren't, just send me email. You'll notice that this is in HTML. If you want to read this file in all of its glory, save it from your email package to your hard disk and then bring up your browser. Or you can download (only kidding) the latest copy of Netscape or Attachmate's Emissary and read the HTML directly.

Speaking of Emissary, I should mention that Wollongong/Attachmate has offered to send anyone on my mailing list a free copy, via the post. Write me for details.

Have a happy, safe, and sane holidays if I don't talk to you before your celebrations begin.

David Strom
email me
Web Informant site
An archive of my previous essays may be found here