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ATPM 2.12
December 1996





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The Personal Computing Paradigm

by Michael Tsai,

Year Of The Web

It's been just over six months since I became Editor of ATPM, and coincidentally, it's been just over six years since I first "got online." So while I don't remember the ancient days of the Internet, I've been around long enough to notice how it has evolved over the years. Of all the technological things that happened this year, I would have to say that the emergence of the web in popular culture is the most striking. In the past 12 months, the number of web sites as well as the number of users as mushroomed. A few years ago, almost no one knew what the Internet was. Many people still don't know what being online means, but everyone has heard of the Internet. Not a single day goes by without my hearing an ad for net access on the radio, receiving an unsolicited net startup disk in the mail, or seeing a magazine or television ad accompanied by a URL. The web has been brought from the offices and labs of the computer professionals into the minds and media of the masses.

The Web's growth is both a good and bad thing. Numbers and variety of participants are very important to the Web environment. However, as the number of Web users grows, so does the percentage of "newbies." Many of them are overwhelmed by what the Internet offers, or at least what they think it offers. Others are searching for the utopia they've read about in the media, or are afraid of being left behind if they don't join in.

Where Has All The Bandwidth Gone?

One of the most profound changes on the Web in recent years is content. I remember when graphics were few and far between. If there were graphics, they were usually line art or simple icons. Now, photographs and animated GIFs are commonplace. People convert titles into GIFs to make the text look anti-aliased. Mosaic or Netscape used to be a key to everything the Web had to offer. Now there are so many plug-ins that I can't keep track of what they do. Because of their RAM requirements, I don't use them. I can't help wondering, "What could be so important that it can't be 'said' with text and JPEGS — only with Shockwave?"

I am disturbed most by the number of graphics on the Web that don't serve any real purpose. Graphics are so common that even with my 28.8 bps modem and PowerMac, Web pages load no faster today than they did previously on my IIci with its 2400 bps modem. I used to turn images turn off (or use a non-graphical browser such as Lynx) to speed things up. This tactic is no longer feasible since so many sites rely on image maps for navigation. I don't know many technical details of how the Internet works, but I can't help wondering when the main information pipeline will become overloaded with traffic. Just how much does the ATPM web page slow down when Fishcam updates its image and sends it out to hundreds of people? Is my reading of Reuters and MacWeek being slowed down by home movies of someone's cat?

The More Things Change,
The More They Stay The Same

The Internet has changed in many ways since I began using it, but one thing has remained constant: e-mail. More than any one thing (except perhaps motivation), e-mail is what makes ATPM possible. As you may or may not know, two of our editors (Mike and Rob) live on the west coast of the U.S., while the other two (Belinda and myself) live over 700 miles apart from each other in the east. Schedules and time zones make phone communication inconvenient (and expensive!) and, for obvious reasons, communication through the U.S. Postal service is not a practical way to manage an ezine.

E-Mail combines the best features of the telephone and the postal service. It is quick enough for people to carry out a conversation, but has the permanence of conventional mail. When I go on vacation (a real vacation — away from my Mac), I know that when I return, my postal mail and e-mail will be waiting for me. Furthermore, I can send e-mail at any hour of the day on any day of the year without worrying about waking someone up, catching him or her during dinner, or playing phone tag.

I find e-mail preferable to other methods of communication in ways other than convenience. One advantage is that information is laid out all at once. It is easy to return to an earlier part of a message or even refer to a previous e-mail. I have a complete record of every single e-mail message I've sent or received regarding ATPM. On occasion, when I need to refer to a conversation from months ago, it's easy. Furthermore, this record-keeping requires no extra effort on my part.

People say that e-mail is a bad means of communication because it is impersonal. If they mean "impersonal" in the sense that it doesn't involve speaking face-to-face, I suppose they are right. However, in many ways, I think e-mail is very personal. Communication through writing is good because in order to put something on paper (or on screen), a person has to think through what they mean to say. I feel that a well-thought-out e-mail is more efficient than any other method of communication.

The flip side is, that in order to write e-mail, you have to know what you want to say and how you want to say it. If it is not carefully worded, it can easily be misunderstood. Without the author present to clarify wording, people can be angered and offended. Good e-mail, however, is crisp, clear, and to the point. e-mail has now become such an important social skill that there are numerous "how-to" books on the subject.

What Apple Needs To Do

Macintosh is the platform of choice for a disproportionate number of Web surfers and content developers. This fact probably stems from its historically strong presence in desktop publishing. However, Apple should not take this for granted (as it is doing today with Mac's predominance in education). Apple has not been a strong leader in providing Internet access to Mac users. Other than MacTCP and OpenTransport, most of the software required for productivity on the Internet comes from shareware authors or third parties. I do not mean to imply that the existing software is bad — much of it is of very high quality. However, many people (especially large organizations) don't take shareware seriously. They view Apple's bundling of third party software in its Internet Connection Kit as a sign that the company can't do it itself. One problem with this approach is that it prevents the software from being integrated with the Mac OS. It should be possible to mount FTP severs in the Finder, just as floppies, Zips, and CD-ROMs are now. Likewise, Apple should have followed through with its desktop mailbox idea that died with PowerTalk.

What worries me, is that (correctly or not) people view Cyberdog (originally intended as a collection of LiveObjects meant to demonstrate OpenDoc technology) as Apple's Internet strategy. However, Cyberdog is currently too poorly documented, too slow, and too lacking in the features available in Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Switching to Cyberdog, therefore, is an unattractive option to most people.

Apple needs to decide on a course of action. It should either make Netscape the official Mac browser and get Cyberdog ready for OpenDoc's big launch, or it should work on making Cyberdog a more capable browser. Simply introducing Cyberdog as a demonstration of component technology (without releasing sufficient Live Objects and containers to make it useful) and calling it an Internet strategy is not enough.

Apple's strongest position is in media creation. The company plans to integrate its QuickTime, QuickTime VR, QuickDraw 3D, and HyperCard technologies into the QuickTime Media Layer (QTML). If QTML becomes a standard, not only will content creation and delivery be easier (Remember how QuickTime consolidated the desktop video market?), but Apple's presence on the Internet would be permanently established. How content is stored and linked is just as important as how it is accessed. Netscape Navigator has become the dominant browser not because it is "good software," but because it was good at decoding HTML. HTML is not proprietary, so anyone can make extensions to it. With QTML, Apple has the opportunity to deliver an Internet "standard" that takes it to the next level.

When Apple releases QTML in the next year or two, it will be the first cross-platform standard designed and developed at Apple. Apple is risking some of the Mac's current advantages by attempting to produce software that works equally well with Mac OS and Windows. In this case, however, the move makes sense. Both platforms stand to benefit from an integration of media, and Mac users have always been good at taking advantage of the tools given them. I can't wait until QTML is finally delivered.

[apple graphic]"The Personal Computing Paradigm" is ©1996 by Michael Tsai,

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