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Rocky Mountain Wildflowers

1998 on the Web
Daily Technology Diary

Rocky Mountain Wildflowers
  March 1998  

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Monday, March 30  

Apple Computer finally released the oft-delayed update for its QuickTime multimedia software, which allows QuickTime multimedia content creation on Windows computers for the first time. Originally scheduled for release in the second quarter of 1997, Apple delayed the official release of QuickTime 3 as it added a number of new features requested by software developers. The program has been in beta for some time. Previous versions of Apple's QuickTime on the Windows platform only allowed playback of QuickTime files; this new capability could make QuickTime even more popular among software developers. QuickTime 3 includes an Internet plug-in and two applications for viewing content, called MoviePlayer and PictureViewer. QuickTime 3 Pro, intended for use by content developers, is mainly differentiated by new authoring features for Windows and Macintosh users such as the ability to play videos on an entire screen, the ability to cut and paste digital video and audio clips, and tools that ready content for Webcasting. Unlike Quicktime, it is not freeware. Apple said that QuickTime 3 is available for download. The advanced, or Pro, version is available for $29.99.

Chuck Musciano, writing for SunWorld Online, has prepared a series of tips for enhancing the experience others have at your Web site. For the next several days, I will spotlight Chuck's tips here so you can learn along with me.

check markAllow visitors to cruise through
A lot of Web authors forget that much of the value of the Web is in the journey, not the destination. We tend to think that visitors, having reached our site, are ready to settle down and pore over every last bit of information we've crammed into our pages. Why else would they be stopping by?

The reality is that most visitors to your site are probably headed somewhere else, looking for some other bit of information. Your site may have been near the top of a search engine's results page, or may be a secondary link from some other page he or she was reading. In any case, your readers are looking for value. They want to be able to peruse your site quickly and determine if a longer stay is warranted.

Think about your own browsing habits. I know I often hit the Web looking for specific data, jumping through a whole list of potential sites until I find the one that has the data I need. I don't like pages that take a long time to load or bother me with splash screens before presenting the real information. For better or worse, the Web has made most of us impatient and intolerant of delays due to poorly designed sites.

Check your site. Do you present a splash screen or other introductory pages before getting to the meat of things? Does a visitor have to wade through several levels of index pages before hitting pay dirt? Or are your pages short and sweet, allowing for quick downloading and rapid scanning? Judge your site from the viewpoint of an anonymous visitor. Are you accessible, or impenetrable? Do you invite a quick scan, or do you force users to work to find what they want?

It's often difficult to make these kinds of assessments of your own site, but visitors are doing it every time they stop by. Make their lives easier and you'll create a happier set of customers who will value your site even when it doesn't have what they're looking for.

Thought for the day: "An expert knows all the answers--if you ask the right questions."



Tuesday, March 31  

U.S. Vice President Al Gore said a joint military/civilian board agreed to add two additional signals for civil users to Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites slated to go into service in 2005. "The additional civilian signals will significantly improve navigation, positioning and timing services to millions of users worldwide,'' Gore said. He added that the United States will provide these signals free of charge to anyone in the world equipped with a GPS receiver. The current family of 24 GPS satellites offers two military signals and one civil signal, and the Pentagon degrades the accuracy of the civil signal to provide location and position information within roughly 100 yards vs. 23 to 33 feet for military users.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater said, "The new signals will have profound effects on the civilian transportation system and the people who use it, saving time, cutting costs, enhancing safety and providing unprecedented mobility.'' DOT plans to use GPS signals as an essential component of future air navigation systems. The Coast Guard uses augmented GPS signals to provide navigation aids for ports and rivers, while the Federal Highway Administration has numerous ongoing demonstration projects to integrate GPS into auto, truck and bus positioning and navigation systems. Developed by the Defense Department at a cost of more than $10 billion, GPS has grown from its original purpose of providing precise navigation for weapons systems into an information utility. The companies that manufacture GPS receivers have ramped volumes up to the point that the price of handheld GPS receivers is now down to $100 or less per unit.

Chuck Musciano, writing for SunWorld Online, has prepared a series of tips for enhancing the experience others have at your Web site. This week, I am spotlighting Chuck's tips here so you can learn along with me.

check mark Provide value to your users -- don't be a Web tease
While you're busy making your site friendlier for those surfing visitors, make sure you also keep it useful for those who decide to stay a bit longer. Your site should be easy to use and inviting, not a challenge to understand.

Often, Web authors envision themselves as artists, crafting each page as an individual masterpiece. Background art, fancy layouts, snappy graphics, and typographic effects may make your site look great, but they rarely contribute to the value of the information you're trying to convey.

Spend less time making your site look pretty, more time providing valuable information. Here's a simple test: strip all the tags from your pages and read the remaining ASCII text. Is there value in those words? Are you delivering facts to your users? While it's true that some information may be provided by images on your site, the majority of data you deliver is in the form of written words. Are your words making sense? Will users see the value in what you're trying to say?

Once you have users committed to using your site, make their lives easier. Don't advise them to resize their browser window to accommodate your pages. If you can't make your pages look good no matter what the browser window size, you have a serious problem on your hands.

Try to avoid "Under Construction" pages. Nothing is more frustrating than finding a link on a page, clicking it, and getting back an unfinished page. Don't be a Web tease. Either create the page and set it loose online, or disable the link. Incomplete pages are useless. Imagine opening a book at the library and finding the last three chapters blank, except for the words "Under Construction."

Thought for the day: "No matter how far you have gone on a wrong road, turn back."



Wednesday, April 1  

Saying there were "no challenges left for me here", Microsoft CEO Bill Gates today told the shocked and stunned Redmond faithful he was leaving the company he co-founded to assume the same position at Apple Computer. Then to demonstrate he still posesses that famous marketing genius, in his first act as Apple chairman Gates announced Apple would revitalize the Cyberdog Web bowser, and the next version would be "intricately integrated into the MacOS."

In an equally unexpected development, former Apple interim CEO Steve Jobs today sold his Pixar Animation Studios to Microsoft for a seat on the board of directors. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. Speaking in bereaved hushes, remaining Microsoft officials refused to speculate on Gates' replacement, but hinted "it's not likely to be Jobs."

Overshadowed by other news in Silicon Valley as usual, Sun Microsystems today sold their Javasoft division and the Java product ownership rights to IBM Corporation for $330 million. Citing "failed marketing strategies and insurmountable performance problems" Sun spokesmen said "though tremendously saddened, we are taking the one step that may save Java as a viable multi-platform application development paradigm." An IBM official, speaking on condition of anonymity, refused to comment other than to say "today the world is a better place." IBM, now postured to revive its flagging mainframe sales, has the operating system in hand to mount a strong challenge to UNIX client/server.

With irony harkening back to the days of the Nixon Administration, the Clinton White House acknowledged today that all meetings the President has held in the Oval Office since taking the position in January 1993 have been videotaped, and that America Online has surreptitiously obtained copies of all tapes. Beginning later this month, AOL will open a new channel for their subscribers specifically for showing of the White House tapes. The 11,000,000 subscriber enrollment at the online service is expected to quintuple, strapping the already bandwidth starved access provider. It is not clear at this time whether AOL will broadcast the tapes in serial sequence, or whether they will start with the blockbuster segments sought by independent prosecuter Kenneth Starr. Clinton Administration staff have been working feverishly with Capitol Hill congressional members to expedite the Communications Decency Act II.

Thought for the day: "Have a happy April Fools' Day everyone."



Thursday, April 2  

Netscape source code and the Linux operating system could be the combination that unseats Windows, said Marc Andreessen, Netscape visionary. The Netscape co-founder and executive vice president of products made the comments while speaking to the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group in San Jose, Calif. Linux is the free version of Unix that is gaining popularity among developers. Netscape used Linux as a model when it was planning to release the Communicator source code, which has been free to licensed developers since Tuesday.

Andreessen outlined a scenario in which Mozilla, as the Communicator code is called, becomes the GUI that runs on top of a Linux operating system. Netscape is taking steps to make this a reality, including making Linux a "total reference" platform just like Win 32 and Macintosh, and will develop all its products to work with Linux. Third-party developers have already compiled the Communicator code for Linux.

Andreessen's prediction could be bad news for Sun Microsystems, which has often allied itself with Netscape, particularly when it comes to battling Microsoft. Sun's Solaris platform owns nearly 50 percent of the Unix market, so it has much to lose if Linux adoption becomes widespread. But Sun will eventually have to embrace a free source model, Andreessen said, and companies must find a new way to be profitable besides keeping a stranglehold on a platform. He cited Java as a perfect example, saying it is fragmenting despite Sun's efforts to control where it goes. Mountain View, Calif-based Sun would be better off releasing control of the language to the larger development community, Andreessen said.

Chuck Musciano, writing for SunWorld Online, has prepared a series of tips for enhancing the experience others have at your Web site. This week, I am spotlighting Chuck's tips here so you can learn along with me.

check mark Be bandwidth friendly
Like it or not, the vast majority of Web users view the Web at the agonizingly slow rate of 28.8 kilobaud. This is like watching a movie through a paper towel tube: doable, but hardly satisfying. To maximize the experience of most of your visitors, make sure your site gets to their browsers in a reasonable amount of time.

One of the top reasons users abandon sites is boredom: they simply get tired of waiting for the site to download. There are several ways you can make sure that your site arrives as quickly as possible over the 'Net:

  • Remove superfluous graphics. Graphics are huge bandwidth wasters, no matter how much you think they add to the overall visual effect of your site. Background images, in particular, can consume lots of bandwidth and contribute almost no value to a site. If you must include images, make sure you use the height and width attributes with the <img> tag. That way, the browser can reserve space for the image and keep displaying your page as it downloads.

  • Break long pages up into multiple smaller pages. Users can then download each page quickly, reading as they go, rather than waiting for a single long document to download. This is especially important if you use tables to control document layout. Browsers usually can't display a table until it has been read and sized in its entirety, so a long document, even text-only, contained within a table will appear blank to the user until it's been completely transmitted.

  • If you must provide graphics, consider providing preview thumbnails and links to the larger full-size image. That way, users can decide if they want to take the time to download the full image, instead of having the image forced on them every time they visit the page.

  • If your site allows searching, enable users to constrain the search, reducing the time they spend waiting for results. For example, if you provide the ability to find a local reseller of a product, allow the user to enter her state of residence before starting a search. That constraint should make the search much quicker, reduce the load on your server, and deliver the result more quickly.

  • Thought for the day: "To err is human, but when the eraser wears out before the pencil, you're overdoing it."



    Friday, April 3  

    Netscape's forthcoming 5.0 browser has been dominating the news for the past week or so, but today it's a new update to the 4.0 series that's making news. Netscape Communicator 4.05 is a maintenance release featuring, among other improvements, enhanced interoperability with Microsoft Exchange 5.0 and Microsoft Outlook, faster Java start-up and applet loading, and a utility to ease email migration issues for Eudora users. As with previous 4.0 releases, Communicator comes in 16- and 32-bit versions, so all Windows users can stay current. Don't fret Macintosh users, there's also a version for you. And for those of you interested solely in Communicator's Web browser component, "Navigator standalone" versions (which do not include mail, news, or HTML-editing components) are also available.

    Chuck Musciano, writing for SunWorld Online, has prepared a series of tips for enhancing the experience others have at your Web site. This week, I am spotlighting Chuck's tips here so you can learn along with me.

    check mark Embed links that make sense

    This may seem a bit obvious, but make sure you put links in your pages. Not just links to your other pages, but links to related sites, products, and vendors.

    Linking to your own pages is obvious. Make sure that you can reach all of the pages on your site in a logical manner from any other page. This means that every page needs a consistent set of navigation tools that link to the next, previous, and parent pages on your site. It's easy to forget that most visitors don't enter your site via its top-level page. Instead, they wander in three levels down, deep in the document hierarchy, and get hopelessly lost trying to find the rest of your site. There should be an obvious way to get to the main page of your site from any other page, and there should be effective links between related pages on your site.

    Lots of sites have effective internal links, but far fewer have effective links to other sites. Remember, it wouldn't be a Web if we didn't link everything together. One of the most significant values you can add to your pages is good links to related sites. This allows the visitor to find other places that may pique his interest, or probe deeper into a topic that you touch on briefly.

    There's a simple reason why most sites don't have these kinds of links: it's hard work. It takes time to find links to related sites, and it takes ongoing effort to make sure those links are up-to-date and correct. Still, your job as a Webmaster is to provide value to your users, and those links are important. Take the time to link to related sites, whether it's a site with content similar to yours, a vendor of a related product, or just a site that provides good background material on a word or phrase you use. A link-rich site is far more valuable than a site that's just a dead-end on the Web.

    Thought for the day: "I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization." - Detronius Arbiter, 210 B.C.



    Saturday, April 4  

    Dell Computer agreed to pay $800,000 to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it violated the agency's mail-order rule by advertising free software that was not ready to be shipped. The fine is the largest civil penalty paid by a single defendant for breaking the FTC's mail-order rule.

    The violation occurred two years ago and was in part due to unfamiliarity with the rule, said Round Rock, Texas-based Dell, a leader in direct marketing of PCs. "We don't acknowledge any intentional wrongdoing. Our awareness of the rule and capabilities to deliver our products are even better now," said company spokesman T.R. Reid. "This settlement will not have any effect on our relationship with our customers." Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said the FTC enforces the rule vigorously to ensure that consumers have confidence in mail transactions.

    Chuck Musciano, writing for SunWorld Online, has prepared a series of tips for enhancing the experience others have at your Web site. This week, I am spotlighting Chuck's tips here so you can learn along with me.

    check mark Support alternative browsers
    Some of you may actually be surprised to learn that a good percentage of your users are reading your site with something other than Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer. It's easy to assume that the whole world uses these two browsers and design your pages accordingly. Unfortunately, you may be alienating a portion of your readership as a result.

    Alternative browsers exist for a variety of reasons. There are hundreds of other browsers out there, bundled with other software packages or under limited release from niche vendors. Many "browsers" are, in fact, robots or other automated site indexing tools, using one of several popular libraries of site access tools. While no human will see the results of these browsers, they still need to view your pages in a coherent manner so that they can build their indices or update their search engines.

    Alternative browsers also exist for the disabled. In particular, browsers exist for the blind and the visually impaired. How would your site fare when translated to Braille? All those clever images are useless; items that could have just as easily been represented as text are simply lost when rendered as an image instead. Other browsers are intentionally text-only, targeted for user environments where the only display device is a 24x80 dumb terminal. How does your site look when rendered on a 3270 display station?

    Another class of browser has graphical capabilities, but in a limited sense. The popularity of WebTV and similar interfaces places great constraints upon the page designer. Can your site stack up when rendered with just a few hundred pixels? How about in a monochrome graphical display in a hand-held PDA? A huge variety of devices will soon have access to the Web, and you may find your site popping up in all sorts of unusual places.

    Last but certainly not least, we often forget that most popular of all browsers, the printer. At some point, all of your pages will be printed. Will they look good? Will information be lost due to background image dropout or strange font color conflicts? An increasing number of Web authors are providing links to printer-friendly versions of their sites, with fancy formatting removed and easily printed text flow. You should always take the time to print your pages on a black-and-white printer to make sure things are acceptable.

    Thought for the day: "Every man ought to be inquisitive through every hour of his great adventure down to the day when he shall no longer cast a shadow in the sun. For if he dies without a question in his heart, what excuse is there for his continunace." - Frank Moore Colby



    Sunday, April 5  

    Antispammers are mad as hell, and they're on strike. A cadre of people who spend hours of their own time every day ridding the Internet's bulletin boards of thousands of commercial advertisements are tired of cleaning up after the Net's growing mess. And they say they are not going to do it anymore. If the strike--expected to last a few weeks--works as planned, Usenet newsgroups could be so flooded with spam that they will be virtually unusable. The antispammers are hoping that problem will spur Internet service providers and others who control the floodgates for newsgroups to take some action against the steadily increasing tide of newsgroup spam.

    The people calling for the "moratorium" make up the same group of just under a dozen antispammers who have used so-called Usenet Death Penalties to force several ISPs to stop allowing their customers to flood Usenet with spam. But the problem is a lot bigger than one or two ISPs, according to the group. Antispammer Chris Lewis cited statistics showing just how clogged Usenet has become with spam in a posting to "news.admin.net-abuse.usenet" calling for the moratorium. You can view Chris Lewis' call to in-action here.

    To create a GIF image with a transparent background (very handy for Web designers), give your image a background that is a bright, solid color (avoid black or white). Select the dropper tool and right-click on the color in the image you would like to make transparent. This defines it as the background color. Select File and Save As. In the Save As Type field, choose GIF - CompuServe; in the Sub Type field, select 89a, either interlaced or noninterlaced. Now select Options and be sure that the Set the Transparency Value to the Background Color box is checked.

    While not as popular today as last year, drop shadows are still an attractive graphics effect. Create a selection area using the Selection or Magic Wand tool. To open the Drop Shadow Parameters dialog box, choose Image, Special Effects, and Add Drop Shadow. If the option is grayed out, it means that your image is not a 24-bit color image or a 256-shaded grayscale image. Choose the settings for your shadow--color, opacity level, blur, and offset adjustment. To apply the shadow, click on OK. If you like what you've created, right-click on the selection area to deselect it. If you want to try again, choose Edit, then Undo (or Ctrl-Z).

    For more information about the Paint Shop Pro graphics editing shareware, visit Jasc Software, Inc.

    Thought for the day: "As the trials of life continue to take their toll, remember that there is always a future in Computer Maintenance." -- National Lampoon, "Deteriorada"


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