Lost in ActiveX
Tuesday, July 1, 1997 by Dave Winer.
In May I wrote a DaveNet piece on Wired's NewBot search engine. The DaveNet piece was also called NewBot (hope this isn't too confusing).
NewBot is a search engine that indexes over 100 news oriented websites on an hourly basis. It's an essential tool for a news oriented web writer. Often I'm visiting all the hot sites looking for various spins on stories as they roll out. I expect this to happen more and more, competing commentaries rushing to get on the web, pushing lead times down to their realistic minimum. The web reinvents journalism, and with some help from tools like NewBot, we get there sooooner.
Unfortunately NewBot came with a surprise. It only worked on Windows and required Internet Explorer. I found out later that this is because Microsoft partially funded the development of NewBot. I complained to the Wired people. The impact of NewBot isn't being felt because of its narrow compatibility.
I want NewBot to have a straight HTML interface, like InfoSeek and Excite, the two search engines I use the most these days.
Last week I successfully installed the NewBot software on my PC. It's a nice Visual Basic application. Colorful, fast, easy to use. I started using it to track stories. I was pleased with the whole experience, at first, but for some reason when I re-launched the NewBot app, the disk grinds for about a minute and no window opens. I've tried re-downloading and re-installing the software, to no avail.
The fun lasted about three days, I liked it a lot, but now I am without a just-in-time search engine again.
Microsoft is funding lots of web development these days, splitting the bill with big publishing companies like Wired and Ziff-Davis. This guarantees some content for the new Internet Explorer 4.0 which is still in beta. It also keeps things like NewBot from opening up new growth on the web.
Personally, I think Wired is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. How much money is Microsoft paying them? Could it possibly be worth it? They have THE hot web idea of 1997, and it's lost in a mess of ActiveX.
I just spent two weeks upgrading the Scripting News home page, negotiating bugs and incompatibilities between the two leading web browsers, Netscape Navigator 3.0 and Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0.
I finally arrived at a decent compromise that doesn't depend on GIFs for the user interface, has some color and style, doesn't crash Netscape or make it look silly, and can go somewhere. It was tough getting Netscape's and Microsoft's browsers to agree, but finally they do.
A surprise at first, I also had to make my page look good for Netscape 2.0. A lot of browser users haven't upgraded to the 3.0 level, even people reading a geekish site like Scripting News. Makes me wonder how long we'll be supporting the 3.0 level browsers.
Back to just-in-time search engines...
When Wired lets their new search engine talk to users thru HTML they will have a super hit. I wish they wouldn't wait. Or I wish one of their competitors would see the advantage in striking first.
I have my own ideas of what would make a great search engine interface. Now that Wired is playing around with this, I want to play too. I'd like to use an outliner and database for my searching. I'm sure others would invent other interesting interfaces.
Since only NewBot has this kind of server, it would be great if they propose a standard TCP-based interface for accessing the search engine so I can write desktop applications that interface to it. Go ahead and include ads in the TCP interface. Only promote clients that display the ads.
When other just-in-time search engines show up we can ask them to be NewBot-compatible.