I-net 101 - The World Wide Web - Part 4/4
Written by Marco J. Shmerykowsky P.E.
Quick. When a person asks if you are connected to the Internet, what high tech capability comes to mind first? Chances are that it isn't being able to send and receive e-mail or transfer files via FTP. In most cases, a person will think of the World Wide Web. It's not surprising. The World Wide Web (WWW) represents one of the simplest, most visually oriented tools in the Internet's vast collection of tools.
In simple terms, the "web" is a collection of electronic documents. Each "document" consists of a computer file that contains information in the form of text, graphics, video clips, and audio clips. The information contained within these files can be connected or linked to other "documents." These connections form an interconnected "web" which uses the open, standard protocols of the Internet to span the "world wide." Thus comes the term "world wide web." Like I said, it's pretty simple.
The interface to the world wide web is a computer program, known as a browser, which translates files written in the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) into a readable format. In addition to popular browsers such as Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape's Navigator, there are various other browsers with varying capabilities. For example, I sometimes use a text-only browser known as Lynx when I connect to my Internet Service Provider. Although it doesn't display graphics, it does provide very quick access to certain information.
A user manoeuvers through and between web documents by using the mouse to select links. A single click with the mouse button on a highlighted graphic element or piece of text takes the user to the next document. Finally, in addition to allowing access to HTML documents, most web browsers can access other Internet tools such as e-mail or FTP.
The web was born back in the dark ages of the modern Internet revolution. In March of 1989 a researcher at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, named Tim Berners-Lee proposed a system which would enable efficient information sharing among various members in the scientific community. The system would contain a consistent user interface which would allow for "universal access" from many different computers. The tools for providing this information sharing were slowly developed until the first graphical web browser was developed in 1993.
In the intervening 5 years, the web has expanded so fast that it seems as if everyone is using it. Major corporations such as Microsoft and IBM have reoriented their product lines around the concept of using the Internet to communicate. Electronic commerce has begun to flourish as companies offer "on-line" catalogues with the options for instant purchase. Even the United States government has begun offering tax forms on the Internet. The times when it was necessary to run to the local post office to pick up the proper tax forms prior to April 15 have been replaced with "downloading" those last minute forms from the comfort of your own computer.
Now that I've briefly covered what the web is and where it came from, I would like to take a look at what can be done with it. In simple terms, a web browsing session consists of two parties, the user or "web surfer" and the content publisher. The user's job is to find the information which will provide a solution to a problem, and the publisher's job is to make finding this information as easy as possible. In general, the ideal web browsing session is a model of clean and efficient communication where a question is presented clearly and an answer is provided quickly.
The key to this communication is a understanding of reality. The web is a portion of a global computer network which is composed of wires with a finite capacity for carrying information. In addition to web traffic, the Internet must carry data from e-mail transmissions, FTP sessions, USENET traffic, Internet Relay Chat sessions, and a number of other applications. At times, the Internet can feel as if it's moving, or not moving, at the speed of a clogged freeway. Thus, web users must realize that they shouldn't expect to see sites that have spinning graphics, continuous sound tracks, and full screen video clips with the quality of a laser disc recording. Instead, they should expect quick access to the information they're looking for without extraneous fluff.
A publisher's job is to provide the quickest access to possible information. For example, a manufacturer of rolled steel sections should provide a listing of available sections and not a 30 second postage stamp sized video of a steel member being lifted. In addition to tailoring the content to present only relevant data, the publisher should follow one simple guideline -- "Keep It Simple, Stupid!" (A more technical discussion of the various HTML design issues which are related to the KISS principle is available at my personal web site at http://www.panix.com/~marco/docs/info-docs/html.html)
There is no need to complicate a web browsing experience unnecessarily. The best real world example of the "KISS" principle is the Yahoo! web site. Instead of using many colors, fancy graphics, or web design screen layout tricks, Yahoo! uses simple black text on the gray background which was common in the early days of the web. Even with this rather dull design, Yahoo! has more users than some major national magazines have readers. This dull looking directory of Internet information has managed to help push Yahoo's stock price into "blue-chip" levels. One of the primary reasons for this success has been Yahoo's conviction of focusing on quick access to information.
The one point which may not have been addressed is whether or not a company needs a site on the world wide web. The answer to this question depends mostly on the composition of the target market. Suppliers can provide potential buyers with instant access to product information rather than enduring the delay caused by "snail-mail." In their case using the web can create a competitive advantage. Consultants, on the other hand, will most likely not win work on the basis of a web page. They will, however, benefit by having a public presence through which they can continuously keep their clients up to date on the firm's most recent accomplishments. Furthermore, the web site can serve as an appetizer to a larger marketing effort. Finally, if the target market still considers computers to be expensive paper weights which cause as many problems as they create (which to a certain extent they do <grin>), then creating a web page would be a wasted effort.
In conclusion, the world wide web is a world wide collection of information sources. Quick access to this information helps people solve problems. Solving these problems quickly theoretically makes our lives easier.