DaveNet: Friday, July 18, 1997; by Dave Winer.

blue ribbon It's Almost as Good as Sex

By Craig Cline, ccline@sbforums.com, editorial director of Seybold Seminars.

The gestalt of a successful web site... It isn't the Amateur Hardcore site. Nor is it Playboy, or CNET, or even Microsoft and Netscape.

No, the most popular website on the planet at the moment has us hotlinked to an $160 million robot on the surface of Mars.

When the voyage of the Pathfinder lander finally surfaced to the public's consciousness, its website had been underway for most of the 10 month journey of the spacecraft. As one NASA official put it, "The Pathfinder and the Web came together at exactly the right time to bring this experience to everyone in the world."

My own mockup

As a kid I used to love following the space missions, having my own mock up of the Houston and JPL control rooms, savoring every grainy black and white picture, or false color image beamed from the Moon, Mars or Jupiter. But I was dependent on the vagaries of broadcast news operations, who more often than not used the waning popularity of the space program as an excuse to cut back coverage to 3 minute "segments" on the nightly news shows.

I'd have to wait months for an official NASA publication to come out with the images of the faraway planet I so coveted. One of my prized possessions is a hardcover book NASA published after the Viking missions, detailing the best analysis of the Martian surface, with photos that were stunning even if way belated for my impatient mind.

My delight

So just imagine my delight as I heard a commentator on NPR's Science Friday rattling off a website address - http://mpfwww.jpl.nasa.gov/. Even on our T3 at the office it was way slow - NASA said it was getting in excess of 10 million hits per day. But the far sighted media-savvy NASA administrators realized that this wouldn't do and arranged for a number of other sites around the world to mirror the JPL site. And who wouldn't - indeed, if you go to the home page of any of these sites you are presented with the list of Mirror sites available - followed by their load capacity measured in hits/day. Needless to say, SGI, DEC, Compuserve and Sun led the pack, with SGI boasting 20 million hits/day capacity as the "leader," -and the top four totaling 51 million hits capacity. In the last few days there have been times when even the SGI site seemed to be saturated.

Visiting the site you get up to the minute images - the same ones released to newshounds in the daily JPL briefings - as well as a bevy of other data, including the Rover (Sojourner's ) status (and we're talking the actual sequence of commands that are downloaded to the Rover instructing it what to snoop at next), Current Science Data from the mission, and the Current Weather conditions on the Red Planet (the atmospheric conditions, wind speed, pressure - again all the figures shown by scientists in the press conferences).

In fact, had you been astute enough to check out the site prior to the landing, you'd been able to check up on the Pathfinder's Cruise Engineering data, which enables you to see the real-time data coming from each of the spacecraft's instruments and sensors just as the JPL scientists received it!. For example, the temperature of the Lander's computer (MFC, which was based on an off-the-shelf MIPS processor) at 00:44:02 spacecraft time on day 185 of the mission (July 4, landing day) was 4.56661 C. I know, many of you find this totally boring. But if you are a space junkie, being able to tap into the instrument readouts just like the JPL scientists were doing - as they were doing it - it was almost as good as sex.

NASA used the web site to try out a few new web technologies as well, including a VRML version of the "monster pan" of the Martian surface which enabled you to navigate around the image kinda like you were there (VRML is still way to kludgy for my tastes), and a Java applet from Vosaic that enabled you to view streaming video and audio (when you could connect to the video and audio servers, which I found to be hardly ever). But in both cases I wanted them to work, which is more than I can say about most of my experiments with these technologies.

Who cares?

Anyone who is trying to build and operate compelling websites should care. Ultimately, what makes a web site successful is not its spinning gifs Shockwave animations, Java applet, award-winning design - nor even its content. Rather, it's how each of the above is selectively combined to create a compelling experience for the visitor who finds that the site delivers something which the visitor desperately wants to have just at that time. That's the secret of the success of porn sites, or the popular news groups, and even CNET and Netscape - each doesn't just show off a technology, or make a design statement, but rather delivers the entire gestalt of a desired experience, whether that experience be interaction, information, or entertainment varies by individual.

The Mars Pathfinder site isn't particularly well designed; it's missing information that visitors would love to see, and response times leave alot to be desired at times. But what it has going for it is that it brings an experience of the gestalt of an event to hundreds of millions of people around the world at the same time, touching each life with its own unique message - something that the telegraph, telephone, radio and television has only been able to hint at before.

Damn, it's exciting! The Pathfinder site is what the web really is about. And so are those other sites that bring together millions of individuals, causing them to forget, even if for just a moment, the miracle that brought them together in the first place.

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