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From Page to Application
Sep 29, 1997 :: Michael Sippey

It's so ironic, it hurts. Just as Netscape finally makes a major play into the content arena, leveraging their undeniable strength of default browser settings into hundreds of thousands more page views per day, they decide to scrap the "page" altogether. Thanks to a wily combination of Javascript, dynamic HTML and layers, Netscape has turned their site from a drab, boring corporate behemoth into a confusing morass of drop-down menus and flying windows.

And I bet they have no idea what chaos they've unleashed.

It used to be that your standard corporate website could borrow from existing real world materials -- like a corporate brochure or an annual report -- for content, design and identity. While we can argue until we're blue in the face the usefulness of these sites, at least it was a metaphor that both the producers and consumers of the content understood and were familiar with. The fact that these were "pages" made it easier for the company to understand (and fund) their transition to the web.

The next level of complexity, database-driven sites with user-customized content, really didn't break the mold, only bent it a little. Producers used the database to produce those pages a bit faster, and a bit smarter. Users were still presented with a page, but this time it had more information designed for their particular point of view.

But now, with Netscape's redesigned site, we're seeing the next generation of site design -- where sites move away from the traditional page metaphor and into something else entirely. When you load using the latest version of Navigator, the user experience is radically different from not only the previous version of their site, but also from pretty much any other site on the web. Overlapping windows with "minimize" buttons. Drop down menus. Cascading lists pointing you five layers deep into their content.

It's pretty clear that this is not a web site. This is an application.

One of the oft-cited reasons for the slow, painful death of the CD-ROM market is that every product on the shelf had a different user interface. When you loaded a new title, you had to learn how to navigate all over again. And since every Tom, Dick and Jane designing CD-ROMs felt that they had the best approach to designing a user interface, new designs refused to learn or steal from the older products. For a consumer, every new title meant a new learning curve.

Along came the web, with its simple, self-explanatory link. You click on it, it takes you to another page. You go back. You go forward. You go home. Even when Andreessen committed heresy by introducing the IMG tag, people adjusted. Heck -- if you could click on a link, you could quickly learn how to click on an image.

Now, with Javascript, dynamic HTML and layers (not to mention Java proper and ActiveX), we could be in for a whole new round of competing user interface metaphors. Given the sheer number of sites out there, the CD-ROM user interface shenanigans will pale in comparison. We can probably count on dozens of web design firms -- anxious to cut their teeth on new technology, and looking to stay one step ahead of their competition -- to push their clients into site redesigns that exploit what is essentially an application programming language.

Netscape's tools are great if you're actually designing a web-based application. Javascript and dynamic HTML could be perfect for the job...never mind that the development tools are in their infancy, and that there are no application design guidelines like there are on the Macintosh or Windows platforms. But when it comes to building websites that deliver static, or even database-driven content, these tools probably aren't the best solution. Netscape's menu system and flying layers only get in the way of delivering information. Sure, I can dive five layers deep into their site in a few mouse clicks. But if the site had been well-architected to begin with, I should be able to do that anyway.

Corporations have to ask themselves what the most appropriate "face" to present to the public is. What do their customers want out of their site? What metaphor are they more comfortable with? A page that looks and acts like every other page on the web? Or an "application" running on bleeding-edge technology that obfuscates the content and puts the navigation element front and center?

Or maybe this is a better way to look at it: when you have applications you inevitably generate customer support problems. And when you have support problems you better have support staff to deal with them. And I'm not sure that many corporations are ready to take phone calls from customers or prospects asking them how to navigate their website.



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