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Life Beyond the Browser
As part of my job, I've been leading some fairly informal "Internet training" sessions, spending about an hour or so every few days with a different group of 20-30 folks, feeding them the religion. It's an interesting challenge, introducing the the overwhelming sprawl of the net to newcomers in under sixty minutes.
The most frequently asked question I get is "What's the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web?" And I explain it like this...
Like millions of other businesses, we run a local area network in our office. The LAN consists of file servers, some routing hardware and some cabling. And on that LAN runs an email system, some corporate databases, and a small amount of groupware. It's easy for folks to distinguish between the LAN itself and the applications that run on it.
So, I tell 'em that the Internet is "just another network," albeit one that's cross-platform, distributed, built from the bottom up, etc. And that they should consider email, FTP, IRC and the web just applications that use the network. This starts to open people's eyes a bit. Because they start to realize that the web is not the be-all end-all of the Internet.
When you can look beyond the useless corporate web sites, and view the Internet as "just another global network," the possibilites start opening up before you. Because if you can build a client/server application that uses the 'net as the conduit, there are opportunitites to distribute information in a graphically rich environment. An environment where the limits of what can be accomplished with HTML and CGI scripting disappear.
This is happening now, and in a high profile way.
Pointcast Network's screen-saver-slash-news-viewer seems to be on everyone's desktop lately. It's a resource-hogging Windows app which downloads news stories, stock quotes, weather maps, horoscopes and lottery numbers and displays them in either an animated screen saver or a graphics-heavy application. Oh, and did I mention the ads? Yes, it's ad-supported. Like everything else.
Over the coming months we're going to see a heck of a lot more applications like Pointcast, thanks to technology like Microsoft's Active-X. With Active-X, Microsoft intends to transform millions of Windows developers into Internet developers using standard tools like Visual Basic and Visual C++. Want to have your custom Visual Basic app retrieve the latest inventory figures from the corporate web site? No problem. Or maybe have your internally developed scheduling application update the central appointment server? Just drop in HTTP connectivity with the Win32 Internet API.
This technology will work wonders in vertical markets like financial services, where a whole host of firms are moving quickly to serve up applications which will provide a richer information experience than a browser ever could. Whether it's developed in VB, or C++ or Java or whatever, applications will be built around the way the user wants to interact with information.
But on the mass market side, I'm not sure Pointcast has it figured out. The problem with their model is that it's too much like television. The Pointcast screen saver displays information "broadcast" to it from the server. And that's it. They've eliminated the "serendipity" factor that the web's hypertext lends itself to. Pointcast may give you the headlines and horoscopes and weather maps you need in a pretty user interface, but it's not giving you the opportunity to click away from a news story about the 7 year old pilot to information about the FAA's proposed Free Flight navigation system. Nor does it let you "drill down" from the latest flash on the Unabomber arrest to the actual 30,000 word manifesto.
In fact, the only "hypertext" experience on the Pointcast Network is clicking on the animated (i.e. shocked) advertisements to that particular sponsor's web site.
Why is this not surprising?
Other pieces about client-side software: