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What an Obvious Year, Part One
Dec 23, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

I hate the concept of Netscape years. When people talk about how long they've been on the net, or how long their product has been on the net, they use this ridiculous concept of Netscape years to inflate their level of experience. C'mon folks...when 1996 is all said and done, it will have lasted 366 days (thanks to February 29th). No more, no less.

That's not to say that an awful lot didn't happen in those 366 days, and that it didn't happen quickly. An end of the year wrap-up is an easy way to fill a week, and since I did it last year, I figured I'd do it again.

For me, personally, 1996 was an eventful year. I got married. I quit my job. I moved across the Bay. I earned a bit of notoriety. I started school. And I wrote 46 pieces for the Obvious.

Throughout the year, the developments that I found most interesting were those that illustrated friction in the ways people use or think about the net. In 1996, I saw four key "meta-debates," each of which has yet to be resolved and each of which will only get more interesting in 1997. I'll cover two this week and two next week.

Push vs. Pull
If I had to choose one product which defined 1996 on the web, it was Pointcast. Even though they're facing serious competition from the likes of Backweb, Marimba, Netscape and Microsoft, Pointcast used their first-mover advantage to corner the push-media market. With background communication and simple screen-saver technology, Pointcast turned millions of PC monitors into the equivalent of a $200 television set.

While Pointcast created an army of push-media addicts, for me it highlighted two key questions facing the web. First, what should the browser look like in the first place? Pointcast demonstrated that you don't need to be within the confines of the Netscape browser window to view information over the net. Second, what's the future of pull media? Will push media like Pointcast slip towards a lowest common denominator, like the grandaddy of push, television? And will people with an actual point of view be relegated to the web, where people have to pull?

In 1997, push media will be everywhere, and will be more complex, thanks to products like IE 4.0 and Active Inbox. And don't think I'm being left behind. Stating the Obvious is planning an early-1997 foray into "retro push media" -- otherwise known as email delivery. Watch this space for details.

Relevant Obvious pieces:

Thin vs. Fat
Related to the push/pull question is the thin/fat question. With Netscape 3.0 and IE 3.0, we experienced what the office suites have been going through for years: application bloat. Launching Netscape on some of the Macintoshes I use at school takes a good two minutes, and then it's as unstable as landfill in an earthquake. A few friends of mine have taken to "downgrading" their browser back to early versions of Navigator (some have gone all the way back to version 1.1).

Stability aside, one dream for the Internet is the "universal" or "thin" client, which runs on any operating system and acts as the user's primary interface to network-hosted information and applications. In the perfect thin client world, there would be no more local applications -- everything would be run off the server. It's an attractive dream for software developers and IS managers -- they only have to make changes to the server to rev a product. No more nightmares of operating system incompatibilities, or the physical challenge of upgrading dozens or hundreds or thousands of users.

But the dream is a long way from reality, basically due to bandwidth limitations. Users are used to the speed and convenience of having applications on their desktop, and the ability to control their own information. The fat client we're all used to (full blown PC with local applications) will be around for quite some time.

Even with this past weekend's purchase of NeXT by Apple, the Macintosh vs. Windows debate pales in comparison with the thin client vs. fat client debate. The Mac/Win debate is only about an operating system -- a border skirmish compared to the coming paradigm war over how people use computers and the network. Larry Ellison is just getting started.

In 1997, I think we'll see a trend toward the middle ground -- hybrids between fat and thin. That is, fat applications on the desktop (whether it's a personal productivity tool like a Excel or a vertical application like AutoCAD) will become to look more thin -- they'll get TCP connectivity built in and will start to pull information and functionality off the network on an as needed basis. Meanwhile, the "thin" clients (Navigator, Internet Explorer) will get fatter -- more plugins, more Java, more Active-X. The "super-version" of IE that Microsoft is shipping to MSN subscribers is the perfect example. Finally, the only true thin client may end up being thin enough to fit in your pocket or on top of your television set.

Relevant Obvious pieces:



Other pieces about lists: