No Theories Needed
Friday, April 25, 1997 by Dave Winer.
I got back late last night from the Seybold show in New York. Here's a quick report, no doubt there will be more conclusions, these are just first impressions.
Seybold is a big show, mostly Mac, no Netscape booth, limited Java presence. Color is a big issue, and I wonder what that means. I take color for granted, but print publishers are in the middle of a transition, substituting expensive custom hardware and software for less expensive stuff that runs on off the shelf systems.
To say that print is dead, as some do, is to miss the point that barriers are still coming down in the print world, new things are possible, and new economics.
It's surprising to find out how much Seybold is a Mac show. I've always stood at the fringes of Seybold, not quite sure what's going on there. But now I'm in there, and I see a lot of parallels to the other Mac-centered worlds.
Websites are a fact of life at Seybold now. Nervous jokes about not making money on the web, some coming from the leaders of the print publishing industry, indicate a deeper problem. I understand that the web upsets a lot of carts, and people are understandably scared of things that force them to change. But change is happening, catalogs and phone books and coupons, formerly exclusively print businesses, are rapidly turning electronic. News is moving onto the web. Even if money isn't being made, reputations are, and that's what media economies are built on.
The Seybold conference has the opportunity to guide this community thru its transition, but Seybold itself is going thru a transition, with the absence, for the first time, of its visionary, Jonathan Seybold. For now, it's a large show with lots of power and money. But the foundations of their world are rocking, and in that transition there may be a shift in attention.
At the opening session and at many of the breakouts, Push Technology was much talked about, but few substantial objective opinions were offered. It's understandable that the media companies want to hear about push, but two questions come up. First, is it really Push? and is it really Technology?
Having looked in fair detail at four leading methods of push, I believe that they have little in common, none is really push, and there isn't anything practical you can do without opening significant security holes in your network.
Microsoft and Pointcast, who aligned in March on a standard way of describing dynamic web content called Channel Definition Format, or CDF, seem to be going their own ways now. The docs for CDF are scanty, we haven't received verification from Microsoft that we're correctly supporting it, I suspect that's not possible because CDF is still being specified.
And even if CDF were complete, I have trouble seeing the substance. I've identified three dynamic pages on the DaveNet site, described in a CDF file. Can any software read this file and do something interesting with it?
Even less revolutionary is Netscape's plan for push, called Netcaster. After cutting thru the features, trying to find some technology, Netcaster is simply scheduled bookmarks. Perhaps some value for some users, but, as a web master and web writer, I don't get excited by this. It saves a tiny bit of work for readers, and really doesn't get my content in front of readers on a more reliable basis, which is the idea behind push. Same with CDF and Pointcast.
I've written a fair amount about Marimba's Castanet/Bongo combo. See Can't Touch This!, 2/25/97.
The bottom line, if you want simulated push, email is still the best bet. Sure it lacks the animated GIFs of web pages, but it's a great transport for ideas. And if you want real push, not simulated, your users need a fulltime net connection, and a powerful safe sandbox, something much richer than the caches that the current web browser vendors are providing, and more easily controlled than what Marimba is proposing.
For now, and for the forseeable future, web browsers are the way to go. Get readers to come back by putting interesting stuff on your home page as often as you can.
I floated a trial balloon at the DaveNet Live session on Wednesday night, and got a positive response, so I thought I'd try it on a larger audience.
Here's the idea -- I'd like a small footprint, well-engineered, cross-platform web browser that implements the basic stuff, no emailer or plug-ins. Trust the OS to handle Java apps. Trust scripting to connect to email. No bookmarks. Just an HTML displayer and sound player with hooks for other apps. Built from the ground up to boot fast, be small, and run fast, and have lots of room for building stuff around it and on top of it.
I think there will be sub-categories of browsers. It's too big a market to not be segmented. Some families have two or three machines. Different users have different needs. Now would be an excellent time for someone with a powerful brand to insert a second kind of browser into the mix, one that's fast and simple and easily extensible.
Remember how nice Norton Desktop was in its day? Something like that for the web would do well, I think. User-driven features and no hype. Would people who really use the web pay $149 to upgrade the experience even when Microsoft is giving away its browser? It's worth looking at.
I shared an idea with Roger Black, the conference chair for Seybold New York, a former print designer who now designs for the web. In the closing keynote yesterday, both of us on stage, I was giving my standard schpiel about large dynamic sites with lots of authors.
"Three kinds of people," I say, "designers, geeks and writers." Roger asks -- what about the fourth? "The fourth?" I ask.
"Readers," said Roger.
Yes! I already knew this -- why go to all the effort to create a dynamic news oriented website if not for the readers? But Roger's point might have been more subtle. If you edit a web-based front page, you want to include content that's written by readers. Writing in a vacuum is less interesting than writing that's connected, especially on the web, where you can implement connections with links.
You also want to turn readers with interesing ideas who express them well into writers. I think this is the key to a good site -- it's a talent searching system. When someone who has ideas shows up, you want to incorporate their stuff into your flow. It's how seeds turn into trees. We're still learning how to do this.
Just as the print publishing industry is transitioning to the web, the writers of the web are learning about journalism and editorial systems. We're learning how to write and how to edit without losing much of the energy and spontaneity of web writing.
Former print journalists are learning that they're in a new medium, where lead-times melt to zero, where you can revise a story after it ships, just like television news. Communication is still done thru writing and still photos, like newspapers and magazines. And there are links -- when you discover something new on the web, tell your readers about it, and then take them there. They don't have anything like this in TV, radio or print.
After considering push, the web looks just right. Users can choose their own path thru the web, stories can link to other stories, and searchable databases can archive back issues. These are fundamental features of the web that are totally new and still mostly unexplored.
The most interesting session for me was about online news reporting. I was in the audience, listening to people from Excite, New Jersey Online and the Wall Street Journal. Former print people who are totally turned on by the web. The audience is filled with people like them, people who are actually doing new exciting things, not just talking about doing them someday.
No theories needed, no new technologies -- just a revolution whose heartbeat showed up in a dark hall in a convention center in New York. I can feel the convergence on a personal level, right where I live, in my heart, in my writing.
I like it!
PS: Roger Black is at http://www.iab.com/team/roger.html.