Watching Traditional Companies Trying to Get the Web.

Ever since I saw the Netscape Browser used some 10+ years ago, I have been very interested in developing for the web and even more interested in the potential of the web. Because of my interest, I try to keep up with technical sites and developments. But even more so, I am very interested in the latest ‘fad’ site.

Not necessarily the cutting edge, leaving blood on the floor sites, but new technical ways of communicating and exchanging information. I’m fascinated with these sites because they are building applications that I would never have imagined or even conceived of. I am interested in the potential stretching of concepts and the development of new ideas. And I’m amused by traditional companies, even technical ones, who don’t quite ‘get’ what the true potential of the web is. Unfortunately, I also get frustrated at times when I talk with people who don’t trust the new items on the web and want to rely on old, rehashed ideas from those big companies that don’t always fit how the web really works.

How so? you might ask. Why wouldn’t I want to use Company X’s web tools, they are a big business, don’t they know what they are doing? Based on my experience, my answer is no, they don’t always understand how much more they could be doing. As an example, I’m going to pick on Microsoft, primarily because their tools and OS is widely available and most people are familiar with them. I remember when MS first decided to try and take advantage of this web stuff. There were stories floating around that Bill Gates had come in and told everyone that they were now going to add Internet and Web functionality to Windows and Office. When Windows ’95 came out, one of the advantages it had was having a TCP/IP stack built in so that you didn’t have to install a 3rd party piece of software to connect to the internet. And then came Office ’97, with tools that was going to revolutionize web publishing, especially with the use of Front page and IE 3!

After the release, there should’ve been a revolution in web publishing. Instead, I was more reminded of a dull thud being heard as the bits dropped to the floor and got lost. And I feel there were a couple of reasons for the failure of these tools. The first problem was that techies didn’t want to use MS tools. For the web server and browser, they were far behind other tools that were in use. And there was a feeling that MS was using their desktop power way too much to lock people into their software. This feeling was intensified when IE became part of the OS and “couldn’t be un-installed since it was integral to the desktop”.

In addition the tools created bloated pages that weren’t clean or easy to maintain. For dial-up connections, the addition of the various font sizes and such in Word saved HTML documents could slow the download significantly. And if you didn’t have Word handy, it was not enjoyable to try and update the page quickly in vi if you had a problem after publishing. And you had to have IE to view the pages correctly and the most used browser was Netscape, so having IE specific pages wasn’t going to cut it for web pages.

But the biggest problem was that the tools didn’t really advance the technology and the idea of the web any further. The web publishing paradigm that MS used was still based on the idea of creating things like hard copy documents and not dynamically linked pages where links could change based on a user’s preference or choices. In other words, MS acted like they had complete control of the web and the Internet and the standards, which is what helped them grow when they developed their OS’s. And this leads to my main point that I think I was trying to make when I started to write this lengthy entry.

The Internet can’t really be completely controlled and it’s better to try and play well with others and their toys.

Think about it, here is this big communication channel that can’t be completely controlled by an individual, a corporation or even a government. Yes, all of those entities are trying to exert control and in some areas they can exert strong influence. But the very design of the Internet allows for the setup of nodes that fall outside of some central control. In China they are trying to censor material coming in, yet some people are able to get around the controls. In the USA there is a concern that the telecommunications companies are going to block competitors. And Verisign, I think it is now, has control of the central name servers and can choose which domains are recognized or not recognized. Seems pretty controlled on the surface.

But on the other hand, WiFi networks are growing that don’t require the land lines maintained by the telecoms. And if enough Wifi stations are set up, than alternate name servers can provide the DNS roots that are outside of these company controls. By the very nature of the design of the Internet, it’s meant to be a self healing network that can connect around parts that may be blocked due to problems. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to work around the standard setup but it’s possible. Which means the users have the potential to go elsewhere if they don’t always like the service.

So what I am looking for when I look at the fad sites are for those sites who ‘get it’ and understand more of what the web is about. It’s about innovation, but it’s also about choices and freedom for the users of the sites. Companies trying to lock you in are not going to get as much of the web business as they might want because it’s too easy to go elsewhere in a lot of cases. And in some cases, there is someone doing something completely different that fills a need no one knew existed. Just think what might’ve happened if MS had spent time on some good blogging type software instead of making Word save documents in HTML format.