Predictions for 1997 Revisited

by Jakob Nielsen on January 1, 1998

Sidebar to Jakob Nielsen 's column on trends for the Web in 1998 .

I had two major predictions for 1997 :

  1. taking the Web seriously in business
  2. a rebirth of semantic encoding, using style sheets for presentation-specific markup

Taking the Web Seriously as a Business Tool: Yes

The first prediction partly happened. Many legacy companies launched major Web initiatives to compete with the new Web-specific services before it is too late. The most talked-about example was Barnes & Noble's counter-attack against Amazon.com, though this specific contest is somewhat atypical because of the extensive media coverage.

A journalist from The Economist who attempted to do all his Christmas shopping on the Web in 1996 only succeeded in acquiring one suitable present . For the 1997 holiday season, I still don't think most people would have been satisfied with giving nothing but presents they could buy on the Web, but it would definitely be possible to take care of a large part of one's shopping on the Web. Many large toy stores now sell on the Web, and the bottom-line statistics show that holiday sales doubled in 1997 relative to December 1996. I personally bought my Christmas goose on the Web , following my philosophy that people who claim to be Web strategists should "live the Web lifestyle" as much as possible themselves to get personal experience with the frustrations of real-life use of the Web.

There are still too many large companies that have nothing but brochureware on their sites. There are also too many sites that are filed with slow-to-download glitz. But many sites did slim down and improved their usefulness, usability, and download speeds during the year. For example, in November 1997, the editor of Slate magazine finally admitted that their original design was wrong and took up many of the recommendations from my review in July 1996, including the shorter writing style required for online reading.

The Renaissance of Semantic Encoding: Not Yet

I had expected that Web pages would start being more suited for cross-platform viewing with less presentation-specific markup. My hope was that sites would become adaptable to many different viewing circumstances (including users with disabilities and other special needs). Technically, I assumed that this change would be facilitated by the use of style sheets which would have allowed even prettier lay-out while maintaining portability of the content itself.

This has mostly not happened. Style sheets are currently used on very few websites despite their advantages. The main problem is that the implementation of style sheets was extremely buggy in one of the year's major browser releases. Having to fight these bugs has temporarily made style sheets much less attractive to designers. It is reasonable to hope for the bugs to be fixed in the 1998 release, so I am still hopeful that style sheets will become widely used. Due to bad software, it will simply take a year longer than expected.

Cross-platform Web design will also be strengthened in 1998 by the growth of handheld computers . The one lesson from Comdex in November 1997 was that handhelds are going to be big in 1998. Unfortunately, most of them do not come with wireless modem as a standard, but many people are probably going to buy such modems as add-ons. Mobile Web access is going to be the Internet's next killer app . Also, many business travelers are going to be bringing handhelds to access Web and email from hotel rooms - especially as more U.S. airlines get tough on enforcing restrictions on carry-on luggage.

Handheld computers have tiny screens that will not work for the display of Web pages that are designed with a WYSIWYG authoring tool that assumes that all users have a 17 inch monitor. Web access from small screens will also include more WebTV users and users of new devices that are expected to be launched in 1998. To serve this growing market, websites will have to increase their emphasis on cross-platform design and pages that will display well on many different devices. Rigid WYSIWYG design will decline .


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