Low-Tech Blues in a High Tech World

by Tom Snyder on Aug 17, 1999

(Originally published when Trivera was named “Websight Solutions)

So you’ve spent the money to design, develop and build a Web site. It’s supposed to be attracting and “wowing” visitors, generating sales and/or inquiries, speeding up your sales process, and making your operation more efficient.

But you’ve gotten emails from frustrated visitors complaining of Javascript errors, grey boxes where it looks like stuff is supposed to be, pages that only half-load, CGI errors, time out problems, and other digital gremlins that appear to be Web site elements but just don’t seem to be doing what they’re supposed to. You’ve gone to a friend’s place and tried to show them your web site, but it looks completely different than it does on your computer, and takes forever to bring up. And from time to time you even get a phone call from one of your reps in the field who’s panicking because he’s about to meet a client to show them the proposal he put on line at your site, but he’s getting an “Unable to contact the server” message.

So why doesn’t stuff work?

That’s always the $64,000 question. Bugs and glitches always occur in software. Ask Bill Gates why delays caused Windows 93 to become Windows 95, or why we’re now being asked to pay another $87 to update Windows 98 to a glorified bug-fix named Windows 98 SE). Crashes on some of the biggest Internet sites are becoming legendary (Ebay, E-Schwab and Realtor.com have been down for extended periods several times in recent months). But, even greater than the server-side problems, the biggest problem is the growing gap between what Web developers can do, and what Web surfers can view.

Whenever I talk with printers and desktop publishers, the first thing I tell them is how much I covet their medium. In almost every other field the designer has the ultimate control over how the end user sees what they’ve produced. The project is designed, then the colors are adjusted for the type of ink and/or the type of paper that it will be printed on. Once the adjustment is made, unless the reader is color blind, he will see the project, in its originally intended colors, laid out, formatted, and wrapped just the way it was designed to.

Web developers are not as fortunate.

Every monitor displays colors just a little differently (and can be further adjusted by the viewer). Macintosh computers use a different color palette than PC’s. So not only do no two computers display the colors exactly the same, images developed on one platform may look completely different on the other.

Beyond the physical difference in monitor sizes, people can re-scale the number of pixels their desktop displays. That problem with that stems from the nature of HTML (the language Web pages are written in). Text in HTML wraps automatically depending on how wide the browser window is set. The standards are 640×480 and 800×600, with about 50% of the PC’s set to each. And, unless taken into account in the way it is built, a web site designed to look great in one can look awful in the other. Hardly any sites look good in 1024×768, but a growing number of people scale their desktop to that size anyway. And on a new Hewlett Packard machine at our office, we’re noticing a bunch of other desktop size options, further complicating this mess. And if that’s not bad enough, the visitor may actually set their browser to replace any fonts used in the site with a font face and size of their own choosing, totally ignoring the fonts the developer put into the site. And so, no matter how a Web developer will try to accommodate all the differences, the results are always inconsistent, and you have little control over how the site you’ve designed looks to the end visitor.

Dynamic HTML (DHTML) will overcome much of this, but you’ll need the latest browsers to take advantage of that. And that brings us to another problem – the difference between browsers.

Netscape and Internet Explorer display the same site differently. Compound that with the fact that there are versions 1, 2, 3 and 4 of each out there (with Internet Explorer 5.0 and Netscape 4.6 the current version of each). Each version has its quirks, and also may display elements on a Web site differently from version to version. Early versions of IE are not totally Java compliant, so mouseover buttons, required field scripts, and other Java-based elements on Web pages will either not work or produce an “error” message (while the actual error is Microsoft simply not conforming to Java specifications).

Plug-ins needed to display certain types of content may not work when you update to a newer browser. And content designed for early versions of those plug-ins may also require an updated version of the plug-in. New plug-ins often take over your entire computer (the latest Quicktime plug-in will appoint itself your machine’s “official” image display program if you let it), so people stick with an old browser because they don’t want to download new plug-ins

We’re also amazed at how many people have found a way (intentional or otherwise) to disable Java support on their browsers. It’s a common practice for Network administrators to turn off Java support (both Javascript and applets) on all the browsers on work stations on their network. And while that may help them rest easy thinking they’ve enhanced the security and stability of their network, they’ve eliminated a ton of functionality from many of the Web sites that those people need to do their jobs. Firewalls also present challenges to Web sites, preventing certain necessary two-way communication from happening, thus eliminating the ability for functionality. And if you or they have turned off cookie support, you’ve been disqualified from being able to use many shopping carts on e-commerce sites.

Another huge problem is the basic transmittal of Web content from the server to the browser. You’d be amazed at how many people are still connected to the Web at 28.8k. The surprising part about that is that many of those people THINK they’re connected at 56k! However noisy phone lines, Winmodems, automatic re-routing by Ameritech, can all contribute to slowing down throughput so that images load slowly, Javascripts and applets get corrupted (and then stuck in your browser’s cache), and CGI scripts time out and produce error messages.

As Web developers, we have to deal with these problems on a daily basis. And while Websight Solutions prides itself in producing sites that are scalable to look good in most common desktop sizes, building images that load quickly even on a slow connection, and using common palettes to assure color consistency, we won’t eliminate functionality on our client Web sites because everyone isn’t using the same browsers with the latest plug-ins, or because their system administrator has turned off Java support.

A hassle? You bet! And to a great extent, the medium itself is to blame. How big would TV be if you had to have a basic knowledge of electronics to be able to watch your favorite show? How popular would radio be if we had to re-program a chip inside our radio to listen to Bruce Williams for the first time, or get WKTI in stereo, or hear the new Phil Collins song? Or how often would we use our Microwaves if we couldn’t count on them to provide us with a stable, consistent amount of power every time you pressed the button.

As people in the Internet business we should be the biggest cheerleaders for the technology. And we are. But we also do our clients a disservice if we don’t make sure they’re aware of its limitations.

There’s lots of talk about how the Web will change everything. And someday it will, but it still has a long way to go before it does. One day, every PC in the country will have access to a large bandwidth connection (satellite, cable modem or DSL). One day all browsers will be completely compatible, and will automatically search the Web and download the latest plug-ins. One day Network administrators will allow Java to be enabled on all their work stations (well, maybe not on that one!). One day PC’s and TV’s will be integrated into a single Media Portal… combining the Web and Broadcast TV on a single screen. But that day is a long way off. In the meantime, we’ll still do everything we can to make sure your Web site is geared to make the biggest impact on the largest number of people. Because at Websight Solutions, it’s not about showing off by technological excess. . .It’s about helping your site be successful.

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