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Monday, July 13, 2020

1st November, 1998

We all know how the web is an evolving medium. Changes and new developments are expected. Yet, looking back over the past year it still comes as a surprise to see the size and scope of the change. Changes range from the continuing growth of the web to the appearance of new web page authoring products. Big-gun players are shifting more resources to the web then ever to capitalise on its growth.

Indeed, the changes are so fast and so varied that merely trying to keep up is a major challenge.


Growth and Size

Since the birth of the web some seven years ago its evolution has been astounding in both scope and scale. The past year has been no exception. The surge of popularity of the internet continues. People from all walks of life, business from large to small, have jumped onto the Web.

Consistent with past trend, the web in the past year have been growing at an exponential rate. This is likely to continue. (See Fig 1)


Do you know how old is the web? The World Wide Web program first became available on the Internet in 1991. Although the basic concepts of connecting different computers in this manner was hatched in the 1980s by Tim Berners-Lee. That's a long time ago!



Figure 1


In Australia, as well as other countries, web addresses (ie. The 'www' thing) have became the second address of most organizations. And email is like the organizations second "phone" number. In some cases, web address and email may well be the organization's primary address or communication channel respectively.

Web address has permeated our life. Nowadays almost every newspaper and magazine (and not just computer or IT magazines), are bound to have web addresses somewhere. Television, radio, even ads in cinema are not immune to this "invasion" of web address either.

Like it or not web addresses are here to stay.


Not only is the size of the web increasing, things available on the web is also on the rise. This can be gleaned from the things that people do online.

People surf the web for different purposes. These include checking out the news, checking the weather, monitor stocks, compose email using web based email system (eg. Hotmail, Yahoo), buy things, download softwares, or just for fun etc.

A large part of these activities revolves around this thing called information (only in different forms). Let us take a closer look at this information thing further.


Research, or the act of finding out information, still continues to be the predominant use of the web. This is not surprising considering the volume and type of information that are online these days. Indeed, I consider it to be one of the best source of information of all kinds, from mainstream to the obscure.

The problem is finding it. People do not want to be dumped with mountain of data that they have to sort out. They want precise, succinct answer to their question.

In this year little progress has been made to address this. Relevant sites are still found by word-of-mouth from friends or from reports in the media. Some sites can be tracked down from subject specific sites where others have done the hard work of collecting the relevant sites. Of course, this assumes the surfer know the address of the subject specific sites.

Where they have no clue, heavy reliance are still placed on the major search engines to find the site. Sometimes this is a hit and miss game.

Over the years, search engines have become more powerful, offering different ways to search for the information you are after. For example, recent modification to Alta Vista means you can type in a question and if you are lucky the engine will come up with a site that directly answer your question. Where it does work, this is pretty cool stuff. Yet this is still not good enough. We, the cyberspace citizen demand more.

With the release of Netscape Communicator 4.5, Smart Browsing provides an another interesting development in this area. Smart Browsing addresses the increasing difficulty of finding information on the web. A "What's Related" button provides a dynamic list of web sites and services related to the site you are currently viewing. My brief experience with this is a positive one. It is fast and it points to similar sites that I have no knowledge of. Only time can tell how useful this features is in my information quest.

Figure 2

Another Smart Browsing feature is Internet Keywords. With this feature you can type the words or names you are after into the location field, rather than the cumbersome URLs. Then a list of potential web sites comes up. (See Fig 2 This is what come up when "National Australia Bank" is entered in the Location box.)

The Future

Looking ahead XML may provide a better solution in finding and making better sense of the information out there.

Further into the future a better way to present the information need to and will (hopefully) emerge. In particular, we need to give substance to the "space" component of cyberspace. At the moment, the web page is in 2D. It is a flat piece of text with some colourful images on a very flat screen. Space, however, has three dimensions.

Adding that missing dimension can transform the way information is presented and how we interact with it. It can potentially provide a more compact way to deal with the vast quantity of information on the web. With 3D we can visualise the data, see how one piece of information is related to one another. This is no fantasy. Work on defining a protocol along this line is already in progress.

Couple with Virtual Reality technology we can even fly through this space interacting with the data as we go along. William Gibbson's cyberspace vision is fast becoming reality. A whole new world awaits us.

Making Money

Doing business on the web is also about information. For business, the web is fast becoming a major source of information. Not only does the web replaces the traditional paper based delivery of current news, the web offers new information about a new market and in a manner that the traditional source of information cannot do.

More and more commercial sites are being added to the web. Some of these sites started off providing information, but in move signifying the increasing maturity of the web many this year are providing facility for online transaction.

All but one major Australian bank have set up online banking facilities (and the remaining one is about to go online pretty soon). Following the success of Amazon.com book stores are taking off to cyberspace. In Australia, Dymocks are now offering books online. We can even do our groceries shopping online with GreenGrocer (GreenGrocer.com.au) which allow you to buy fruit and vegetables online and then have it deliver to you. And with E*Trade setting up shop in Australia we can now invest in shares online.

What's around the corner?

Within the next year or so the stage is set for electronic transaction- eCommerce, e-Banking, online shopping, gambling- to become more prevalent. While people have been saying that electronic online transaction is coming for the last few years, electronic transaction has not really taken off. It has not because the time was still premature.

Now the situation is different. There are two main reasons: (i) the size of the net is reaching critical mass; (ii) the technology- security, support, and infrastructure- available is also reaching critical mass. Before you know it the whole thing will just take off.

An uncertain lies with regulation. Although some would say that the absence of regulatory regime is not a real problem in that people have the ability to adapt and find a way out.

Anyhow, some basic ground rules are taking shape. Hopefully, these rules will not be unduly restricting.

A darker side

Web is not just a good place for the surfers to research information, it is also a good source to collect or "research" information about the surfers. This can be done directly and indirectly.

Directly, the people who want the information (eg. Companies who want to use the information for marketing purposes) simply asked for them. A large number of information are collected about users. For example, many sites- subscription for news services, software download, online purchase- request information such as users' income, level of education, precise street address, phone numbers, email address, age, date of birth, gender etc.

Giving such information to the specific entity that asked for them may not be a problem. But what if the entity pass or sell the information on to others (which could be anyone)? Most people would probably not like it.

While the surfer can often opt-out from having their private details disclose or sell to third parties, this option is easily overlook. By the simple failure to check a box (which is often at the very end of the long form and where the description is in a smaller font size) that would let the user opt out of marketing offers, they are assumed to have consented to have opted in.

What about children? Many sites that cater for children also asked such question. The concern is that children is giving out information that should not be given out. Would you want your child to give out their name, phone number and address to anyone who ask them? The problem is perceived to be so severe that the US Senate is considering a bill that would require commercial World Wide Web site operators to get parental consent before receiving a child's E-mail or home address.

The sad reality is that while many companies do have a formal policy on privacy; but, in the face of sparkling money, the policy is simply words.


Not all information is treated alike by surfers. Credibility is more of a problem online. According to a recent survey, the credibility of advertising on the internet is behind that of newspaper and television.

At the moment there are plenty of information out there, but making sense of all the information, sorting out the credible from the incredible, and pulling it all together is no easy task.


Another concern is security. Many people are just very fearful of using their credit card online. Survey have pointed out that of those people who hadn't yet used a credit card for online purchases, 78% indicated that they would continue to avoid online credit-card purchases for at least two years.

Whether the fear is justified is a debatable point. Although I would not provide credit card detail online unless it is done though a secure server. The possibility of the details falling onto unintended recipients are all too real.

Securities fear don't just come from potential hacker attack, it seems that excessive information can be a treat too these days! The Pentagon, for example, have recently reported to have been scouring its web site to determine whether there are too much information that could potentially help enemies!

While individual or even companies need not be so concerned about their web site, it is a good idea to be mindful of the information we put online. Cruising through the web it is surprising the sort of information and the sheer details that people are willing to put online. Some of these information, I am sure, would not be willingly published on the daily newspaper by the person. Why is the web different?

These perhaps shows that the net is really changing not just the way we deal and access information but how we see information. In particular, the boundary between the sort of information that we see as private and public is shifting.

The Browsers War

The 4.0 browsers have been with us for a good part of this year. Netscape has released Communicator 4.5 in Mid October. And Microsoft is scheduled to released Internet Explorer 5.0 beta early November as of writing.

Meanwhile, the battle for market share between Netscape and Microsoft is still raging. Netscape supporter would be disappointed with the result of market research firms that point to the persistent erosion of Netscape market share. For most part of this year, the two are now neck-and-neck in terms of their market share. Although since the release of Communicator 4.5, Netscape market share has surged ahead somewhat.

Whether it will stay this way in the coming year is anyone guess, but if the view of "expert" is anything to go by Netscape share of the market may plunge. A result of a recent survey of some 200 information technology managers with a substantial budgets showed that 57.5% expect Microsoft will be their primary browser vendor 12 months from now, and only 39.9% expect that it will be Netscape.

One another front, Microsoft is still entangled in the anti-trust action by the US Department of Justice. The size and scope of the suit seem to be getting bigger, now with parties like Apple, and even Intel, contributing evidence against Microsoft. Indeed, even the authorities in Italy is taking action against Microsoft.

While it is difficult to speculate, without reviewing the full facts, the outcome of the litigation, one thing that is clear is that it will continue to drag on. Even if the finding about Microsoft is adverse, one thing that Microsoft have a lot of is money, and money can and do stretch out legal problem. The saga will continue.

Figure 3The two companies have very different strategies. Microsoft often use heavy-handed bully tactics leveraging on its sheer mass and dominance. Netscape, perhaps realising that it is difficult to fight Microsoft head on adopted a more tactful approach. Unlike Microsoft it tries to be on the good side of the law makers in the US Congress, and recently it even tries to lure Explorer customers by offering a TuneUp for Explorer that adds Communicator features to Internet Emplorer 4. This allows Emplorer users to use Netscape's portal site, and change Internet Explorer's default search engine to Netcenter, and adds Communicator "Smart Browsing" capabilities to the custom news. (see Fig 3)


Since 1997, Dynamic HTML has been with us. It is full of promises. Yet the take up rate for features like Layers, CSS are not as high as expected.

The reason for this lies perhaps with the inconsistent implementations of Cascading Style Sheets, JavaScript and the Document Object Model in different browsers. Script that work in Netscape may not work in Internet Explorer and vice versa. Indeed, the problem is sometimes worst then not working, it can lead to text being render in a most weird of ways, and in the worst case, even crash a system! No wonder some people turn these features off on their browsers.

As commented in a previous article, eXtensible Markup Language (XML) is a very exciting technology and is definitely something to be looked forward to in the near future.

Web Page Development Tools

This year we saw the launch of more integrated and more sophisticated web page development tools.

Before this year NetObjects Fusion 2.02 was perhaps the most ambitious attempt ever at WYSIWYG Web page design. Fusion allows you to concentrate on the design rather then being unduely pre-occupy with the coding, juggling and switching between programs. Imporving on that, NetObjects Fusion 3.0 became available on the Macintosh in June this year.

Other products started appearing. Macromedia Dreamweaver streamlined the web page process by integrating the program with BBEdit and the web browsers. It also make light work of adding standard JavaScript behaviours to objects.

For web graphics, softwares have also emerges towards the latter half of the year to cater to the specific need of the web environment. These softwares are Firework, by Macromedia, ImageReady and ImageStyler by Adobe.

Whereas previously we need to use software packages like PhotoShop, Illustrator, Freehand, etc and then tinkering with the file size or format with other graphics conversion software like Graphic Converter. And if we want to create animated GIF it is yet another software. Now with these new generation of software programs it is basically a one-step process.

These three softwares are very similar.

Image Ready is geared towards the Photoshop users because of the similarity of interface. It is marketed as an "optimization, compression, and animation powerhouse".

However, Firework is judged by many to be superior. Its interface may be a bit crowded and clumsy but understandable given its extensive features. It does allow you to create stunning graphics very quickly and all within the program. If nothing else Firework permits you to edit the text and any effect (eg. beavel edge, shadows) that you have previously applied to the text will be automatically applied to the new text.

This is not to say that Adobe is loosing the race to Macromedia. Adobe ImageStyler is a remarkable software. It and Macromedia Firework is pretty evenly matched in terms of capabilities. A real innovation of ImageStytler is the image "style sheet" concept. Like text style sheet it allows you to apply the defined style to any object, which can be the text you entered or an image you imported. While Firework can achieve similar feat the interface and steps used is less intuitive compared to ImageStyler.






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