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Why Surf?
Sep 23, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

As you read this, the minions from the north are busy preparing release 4.0 of Internet Explorer. Which supposedly will merge the browser with the operating system, giving folks a browsable view of their file system.

Some people may get their yahoo's out of browsing their C drive, but not this jaundiced writer. I'm more interested in another rumored feature of IE 4.0 that's getting a bit less attention. Microsoft is planning on using IE 4.0 to set aside part of the Windows 95 desktop as real estate for a stream of constantly updated news, quotes and ads.

Having a hard time picturing it? Think Pointcast. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Pointcast is nothing more than broadcast television for the web. It leaves users transfixed by their screensavers, blinded by scrolling headlines, Shock'ed ads and nice weather maps. So, having teased us with HTML goodies like properly implemented style sheets, it turns out that Microsoft has seen the future of the browser, and its not browsing at all. It's more like, well, television.

This does not bode well for us Zoomers.

(In a Packet column last week, Andrew Leonard described the difference between what he calls "Slippers" and "Zoomers." Slippers enjoy a passive net experience, with toys like Pointcast, Magellan's (seemingly defunct) Search Voyeur and Pathfinder's Slipstream (for which "Slippers" are now named). Zoomers, on the other hand, enjoy the hypertextual nature of the web, following links, "zooming" down, across and sideways into different levels of information. Of course, it's no surprise that Leonard considers "slipping" a devolved form of infotainment.)

There have been several surveys of web users that indicate that the slower the connection, the "focused" users are when they're on the web. Surfers with 28.8k connections or slower surf with purpose -- they're usually looking for a particular piece of information or heading to a particular site. Makes sense to me, bandwidth limitations make web surfing painful. Meanwhile, surfers with corporate or educational bandwidth at their beck and call can afford to hop from site to site, aimlessly meandering the hyperlinked jungle. What's ironic to me is that "Slipper" tools like Pointcast or the vaporware IE 4.0 are actually targeted at the corporate user -- the person with a dedicated, full-time, high bandwidth connection, who can afford to have content pushed at them all day long. Meanwhile, the home user gets left behind, forced to scan headlines at Yahoo.

What's really a shame is that the "Big Media" companies, who 18 months ago didn't have the first clue about the web, have hijacked the technology to turn it into something that they're familiar with: the broadcast style, top-down, centralized distriution of information. There is no place in the Pointcast world for something like gURL, or Stubb ex Machina or Stating the Obvious, or even the above-mentioned Packet for that matter.

Basically, what it comes down to is that there is no place in the Pointcast world for anything resembling a point of view. And that is what you should be surfing for. Now that you can have all the pre-digested information you can handle spewed to you in real time -- in a nice, animated screensaver, nonetheless -- you should spend your time surfing for someone that actually has something to say.

I fear that as the web slowly morphs into a television wannabe, content providers with a POV will be relegated to the sidelines. And surfing will be relegated to the consumer backwater -- like shopping at an independent bookstore or local record shop. Instead, most people will sit back and let content come to them. The only point of view they'll enjoy will be one with a Time Warner logo stamped on it.



Other pieces about client-side software: