11 November 1996
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NBR - THE SITE THAT LAUNCHED A THOUSAND BROWSERS
My initial imressions of this site were perhaps affected by my visit to the new ClearNet site just minutes before. By comparison, NBR's site is visually stark, some might say unattractive, although if feedback from Aardvark readers is anything to go by, there is a large camp of Net users who think that the look is "just right".
NBR's site is one of the few on the NZ Web that can get away with charging a subscription for access to some of its services. Typically the mindset of the average Net user has been that "if it's on the Web then it should be free" - but that's not NBR's market. They're out to provide their existing print version readers with more convenient access to the information they're already used to paying for. Reportedly, NBR are quite happy with the level of subscriptions already received and as the headline for this story suggests, the site may be just the reason many business-people need to make the move to the Net.
However... there is a lot for free at NBR and its biggest asset is the fact that the content changes continuously. Let's face it, one of the things which makes TV such an effective medium and so popular with the masses is that it's a constant flow of changing content - in fact just look at how we tend to "turn off" when faced with endless repeats during the "Summer Season". There are a lot of web sites out there which create an initial stir of excitement - but then fade into virtual obscurity simply because they're never updated regularly.
Something not immediately apparent is that behind the scenes, NBR's site works a little differently to most others. It's not just a collection of web pages stored on a server. With constantly changing content such as news and financial information, this would be far to labour-intensive to maintain economically. Instead, the heart of the NBR site is a large database of constantly updated information from which web pages are created "on the fly". This has pro's and con's. On Friday when the site launched, many people noticed that things ran very slowly - possibly due to bandwidth limitations - but equally possibly due to the huge loads that this type of configuration puts on the server - since it has to query the database and create a new web page each time a user clicks on a link.
The site is new, just a few days old, so perhaps some of the flaws and design errors can be forgiven. I found several places where the database queries were failing and instead of getting a web page containing the information I was expecting - I got a diagnostic page from the database engine which was complaining about some type of configuration error. Users should never have to see this type of techno-babble. It should be replaced with a more "user-friendly" error message that doesn't cause the less computer-literate amongst us to break into a cold sweat. I also noticed that on a couple of occasions, the search function returned links which simply didn't work. There are still some planned services which appear to be "under construction" and one occasionally gets the impression that there remains a bit of tidying up to do.
Regardless of any minor teething problems, one thing's for sure, The NBR site has redefined "content" on the Internet in New Zealand and set a benchmark by which all new players will be measured.
So, how does it rate on the Aardvark scale?
CLEAR - A NEW STANDARD IN VISUAL PRESENTATION
If there's one thing that everyone agrees on, it's that this site is just simply the most visually outstanding site on the Web in NZ. You'll need to make sure you've got Netscape 3.0 or MSIE 3.0 to fully appreciate this site but it is an almost perfect balance of text and graphics.
Even the front-page is different and very contemporary with an almost total absence of straight lines and a very clean "white" image.
The various categories on the site are similarly clean and while the pages are quite "busy", there is still more than enough white space to avoid a cluttered look. Would-be web-page authors will probably spend hours pawing over the code behind these pages and picking up a wealth of handy little "tips" and "tricks". Full marks to the web designers behind this site who - I'm sure -can't be the same people that designed the contrastingly awful Clear Corporate site at www.clear.co.nz.
Visually, Clear's Corporate site is, in a word - horrible! In stark contrast to their ISP site, this is a dark, dingy place with little appeal to it. On Sunday when I tried to connect it was down - probably suffering from terminal depression due to all the black backgrounds :-)
But back to the ISP site.... As was the case with Telecom's Xtra site when it was launched, this is mainly a launch-pad full of links but with very little local content. Such sites can be fun places to visit, but there are simply thousands of "link-launchpads" all over the web so Clear are going to have to come up with some regularly updated local content to keep anyone other than their own subscribers from coming back regularly - the novelty of a "great look" can only last so long.
If you're a ClearNet subscriber you can customise your homepage so that it contains only the type of information you're interested in - plus your own user-defined hot-links. This is a nice touch and something which is being adopted by quite a number of sites on the Web.
I have to admit that even after a concerted effort - I couldn't find any rough edges to this site - it's polished!
So, how does it rate on the Aardvark scale?
MORE MAIL WOES AT XTRA
A NEW TALL POPPY?
ClearNet has been very smart in pricing their 0800 service at a dollar an hour more than Xtras. Obviously they don't wish to get embroiled in the current Commerce Commission investigation into alleged predatory pricing. I expect that their price-positioning will actually strengthen the ISPANZ/Voyager case.
Given this pricing structure, it doesn't appear that Clear are in a hurry to ramp up their subscriber numbers or capture a huge chunk of the market in the same way that Xtra has done since its launch. This can only be good news for those who subscribe to ClearNet since one hopes that this will provide plenty of time to ensure that the hardware, software and security systems are up to scratch before they're stressed too hard.
HOW MANY SUBSCRIBERS DO YOU HAVE?
Now that ClearNet is here I think it's time that some rules and definitions are spelt out more clearly so as to ensure that we're dealing with facts and not PR.
How are the big players going to define a "subscriber" when there's no minimum monthly commitment? Voyager include any of their users who has logged in during the past 90 days - what to Xtra and Clear plan to use as a frame of reference?
What point is there in advertising "We have xx,000 customers" when everyone knows full well that a (perhaps large) percentage of those customers are also users of a competing service provider? With no minimum monthly commitment there's no harm in subscribing to all the ISPs - just in case one of them has a special offer (such as Voyager's recent "Free Monday") or in case you need to urgently send email while your usual provider's system is down. One thing's for sure, adding up the claimed subscriber-base of each of the ISPs will NOT give you the total number of Net-users in NZ.
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The entire contents of this publication are copyright 1996 to Bruce Simpson, all rights reserved. Don't copy it without my permission - just ask, I'm unlikely to refuse any reasonable request.