There has been no progress in client software for the last seven years: Mosaic defined the Web feature set in 1993, and since then there has only been more fancy page layouts, no better user interfaces.
This sorry picture is finally changing. Several recent software products have introduced specialized applications with better user interfaces for special-purpose use. And there is even a new browser out with improved user control.
Napster: N-to-N Interaction
Napster is usually seen as yet another nail in the coffin of the legacy media industry. It is certainly a good example of the need to start charging micropayments for content and eliminating copy-protection.
More important, however, Napster is also an example of reverting to the original networked ideology of the Internet. The Web has degraded into mainly being a one-to-one environment instead of the many-to-many environment that is inherent in the Internet. Most websites simply show their stuff to one user at a time. (Yes, that's what I do as well - this very column is a perfect example of very traditional use of the Web.) The few examples that are many-to-many, such as eBay, have been uncommonly successful.
Napster connects many users to many servers and basically allows users to view the entire Internet as a collected resource for getting music (or, potentially, other content and services). At the same time, Napster also encourages users to contribute back to the richness of this resource by making their own music collection available as a small part of the whole. So Napster is also an example of a two-way user interface to the Internet.
Gnutella and Freenet are less famous, but even stronger, expressions of N-to-N interactions.
(Note added September 2002: What I called "N-to-N" is closely related to what became known as "peer-to-peer", though with a slight difference. The P2P concept emphasized direct connections between any two users, whereas I think it's even more powerful when you generalize and allow connections between multiple parties.)
Internet Explorer 5 for Macintosh: Returning Control to Users
I have often been hard on Microsoft and their lack of usability. For example, in 1997 I wrote that IE 4 and Netscape 4 were no better than Mosaic (from 1993) in terms of Web navigation. Fairness thus dictates that I praise Microsoft when they do something right. Which they did for the Macintosh edition of IE 5.
- Internet Scrapbook: You can ask the browser to save a snapshot of any web page you are viewing. This allows you to display the exact same screen again at any time, even if the server does not support this. Particularly useful for saving confirmation pages with order numbers and customer service info (instead of resorting to a printout).
- Page Holder (present in IE4/Mac): When you come across a page that contains lots of useful links (say, a list of previous columns), you can place a list of links in a special pane, allowing you to sample the links without going back to the original page.
- Switchable Screen Resolution: The initial use of this feature is to allow users to fight back against power-grabbing (but clueless) Web designers who specify fonts in ways that make text small on Windows but microscopic on the Mac. More important, this points the way to browser-support for highly variable display resolutions : necessary for use of next-generation monitors like the 200 dpi IBM Roentgen . High-res screens are necessary for pleasant reading of online content and I believe that the new IBM monitors (scheduled to ship in late 2000) will be the most significant event for the Web this year.
- Auction Manager: Unified window for monitoring multiple ongoing auctions at several different auction sites with proactive alerts when the user is out-bid. Finally a move beyond the page. But also a first sign of featuritis: the browser itself should not contain endless special-purpose features or it will end up looking like Microsoft Office. It is better for users to request those special applications they need and get them installed on demand (obviously with an auto-update feature and an integrated user interface so that users don't have to manage the installation of millions of applets).
One bad idea in IE5/Mac: it allows users to customize the colors of the toolbar buttons. This is a frivolous feature that removes the possibility of using color as a communicative element and thus degrades the quality of the user interface. The IE5/Mac buttons might as well have been monochrome because the design has to allow for the icons to be colored any way the user wishes.
IE5/Mac toolbar in various fruity colors (composite of 3 preference settings)
OK, Microsoft, now it's time for you to ship these good features for the rest of us. But please forget about color preferences in IE for Windows.
Yahoo FinanceVision: Web-Integrated Multimedia
I mainly think that it is still too early for use of video on the Web. Most users will not have sufficient bandwidth until around 2004.
But it is time to start experimenting with true multimedia on the Web. It is not enough to simply stream traditional television at the user: a passive viewing experience is too boring for Web users who are used to being in control.
We need integration between multiple media for something to be true multimedia. A single medium (e.g., video) is not enough.
Yahoo FinanceVision is an early attempt at creating multimedia that integrates video and the Web experience. FinanceVision is interesting for two reasons:
- FinanceVision is a specialized application that goes beyond the Web browser to offer a better user interface. And yet the download is small (1 MB) because the software can leverage existing code on the user's computer in the form of Internet access, Web rendering, and video playing. A great argument in favor of integrating standard Web components into the operating system so that independent software vendors like Yahoo can build on top of a richer platform instead of having to reinvent everything.
- The FinanceVision window integrates a video feed, specialized buttons for changing the video feed, and an interaction area (upper right) that follows the video to provide supplementary information and interactions. Often this area contains value-added links that can be used to dig deeper into the stories covered in the video. During live interviews, the interaction area allows users to post questions to the guest. And sometimes the interaction area is used for surveys or other ways of allowing a larger number of users to participate in the broadcast.
Note the use of Internet-appropriate video production:
- Monochrome background that compresses well and does not introduce extraneous detail
- Close-up of a single person: looks reasonable in a small video window
- The host is wearing simple, monochrome clothing (guests usually dress as if they were going to be on broadcast TV: their PR managers have not briefed them correctly)
- Steady camera-work; very little zooming, panning, or use of cuts and fades
As shown in the screenshot, the FinanceVision window also contains a bottom-right area for Web information that is retrieved as the user clicks on links in the interaction area or the live data feed (lower left). Unless the user has a very large screen, Web pages will look rather miserable in this small area. Of course, large screens are going to be common in the future.
The key point about FinanceVision is the integration and coordination of multiple panes that hold different media forms (video, data feeds, interaction and feedback, Web pages).
FinanceVision is only an early exploration in integrating video and the Web. It is somewhat confusing to try to read Web pages at the same time as the video window continues the broadcast; future versions should take a lesson from DVRs and include a "freeze" button that would save incoming video to the hard disk as long as the user was pursuing Web content.
I also find it strange that there is little visual integration between the video area and the interaction area. The anchors could easily point over to the other area to draw the user's attention to things to click on or surveys to answer (in a personal email, one of the anchors told me that they sometimes do this). With some clever animation, it would even be possible for the video anchor to hold up a survey and slide it across to the interaction field. My February 1997 article TV meets the Web shows a visualization of one such idea for making the Web content more tangible in the video. Semi-transparent overlays would be another integration technique.