"A pioneer is the guy lying in the mud with an arrow in his back."
You might feel that the quote chosen for this chapter seems a bit odd, given that many Web developers see themselves on the cutting edge of technology. E-commerce is no longer a sexy buzzword but is rather a conduit for social and economic change. As a result, more people sign up for dial-up accounts to buy their groceries and do their banking every day. These users are investing in high-speed modems and installing the latest browsers, giving Web developers more flexibility to build applications using newer multimedia capabilities.
However, three years ago, how many users would have easy access to sites running Flash and Shockwave applications? Not many. Shockwave required the user to visit the Macromedia site to obtain a plug-in for the browser. How many people could one realistically expect to reach using this application? If there's an interruption in the distribution of said message, most likely the message isn't going to be delivered to anyone but the most determined visitor.
Nowadays, more Web sites are coded using Flash, Shockwave, Real Audio, and Real Video capabilities. All of these tools can be used to send a message to a large audience, because the audience has come up to speed. The latest Microsoft and Netscape browsers intrinsically support many of these newer tools without requiring the user to get a plug-in.
Web developers, who expected to deliver their clients' messages to the world at large using one of the aforementioned tools in 1996, without providing an easy alternative distribution channel, were truly pioneers.
I don't have to make the first wave. I'd rather make it to Oregon. Most of the time, I'm on a limited budget and don't have too many oxen to lose along the way. I have always preferred to take my time reading the map, arriving later, and thus stepping over the bodies in the mud.
While e-commerce is not news to many Web developers, it is only recently that Web firms are getting called to deliver these types of Web sites on a highly consistent basis. My firm had the capability two years ago to build e-commerce Web sites, but I often wondered why we didn't have more requests to build them. Now, just about every Web site that we contract is e-commerce enabled. Yes, the technology was sound and in place two years ago, but the premise had not reached the public imagination as a viable business plan until recently. Sometimes it isn't even a matter of whether the public is technically ready for an idea but whether it is psychologically ready.
A realistic example may be Disabilitynews.net. When Disabilitynews.net was first on the drawing board, the project manager had to assess exactly who his audience might be. The Web site needed to be viewable by health care professionals, families, and people with disabilities.
Disabilitynews.net wanted to provide an ability to purchase journal articles and related books through its Web site. A few years ago, there might not have been enough families or physicians online to support such a specialized e-commerce endeavor. Now demographics show that there would be enough audience members to support Disabilitynews.net's e-commerce effort.
Using another example from Disabilitynews.net, we determined that to serve the visually disabled audience, frames could not be used. The most common Web browser tool used by vision-impaired people reads the text aloud to the user. However, it could not yet deal with frames effectively, and all of the images had to have alternative tags, so that the browser could read a description from any pictures used in the Web site. All of this may not seem like a big deal, but if a vision-impaired user came upon Disabilitynews.net and is not accommodated, this experience would directly impact upon the message Disabilitynews.net wishes to convey. Its main goal of being an informational clearinghouse and community-building mechanism for people with disabilities, their families, and health care providers would not be met. It would have already locked one constituency out of the community. A little thoughtful planning while putting together a technical brief avoids this.
In the excitement of making a Web site and working with new media, it is easy for people's expectations to get off track. The project manager must work with the client company to educate them about making sound choices for the technology at hand rather than developing fancy bells and whistles, which bog the message down because of their inability to deliver en masse. In the case of Disabilitynews.net, the use of a fairly common Web site device-frames-would undermine its message. The project manager was able to foresee this before it became a problem.
As developers, we can envision the day when we can punch in the name of an old 1960s television series, name the exact episode that we want to view, and have that show delivered right to our computer screen on demand. Right now, only video clips lasting a minute or two are working well over the Web. Any clip longer than that requires a cable modem, T1, ISDN, or DSL connection to work efficiently. In magazines and on television, mention is made of Internet teleconferencing as though it's a widespread phenomenon. Still, how many users actually have the cameras hooked up to their computers? These are all applications of the Web that seem viable today, but are we really there yet? In most cases, no.
The smart Web firm must underpromise and overdeliver, making the best use of tried and true methods to successfully develop a client company's Web vision.