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29 September 1997

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Is your email protected by copyright?
An interesting discussion was started on usenet this week after several items of private email were published there.

The copyright laws and the Internet have always had an uneasy relationship with each other, probably a legacy of the early days where most of the content on the Web was public domain and copyright was almost a dirty word.

These days, commercial interests have very much displaced the more altruistic academics that used to be the primary content creators and the whole issue of Net copyright is growing in importance.

The question regarding the applicability of copyright to private emails is an indicator that the problem won't be only that of the publishers and big corporations.

So far there's been no definitive legal opinion on the subject of Net email copyright however I'll see if I can get some legal eagle to come up with something for a future edition of Aardvark Weekly.

E.T., Email Home
Heard of SETI? It's the project set up to search for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. At present most of its work is done by listening over a wide range of radio frequencies for any sign of unnatural signals.

The big problem with this of course is the immense amount of processing power required to sort through the masses of digital data that is received every day by the SETI receivers.

Guess what... there's a chance that you and your home PC can soon become a part of the action!

A proposed project called SETI@home is an ambitious attempt to harness the power of many hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of personal computers to assist in the number-crunching required to analyse the SETI data. This of course would be done using the Net as a ubiquitous communications channel and forming what would most certainly become the largest distributed processing system every built.

Who knows, my email address may one day become editor@aardvark.co.nz.sol4.milkyway

Join the search

C'ause I'm the ad-man, yea yea
It wasn't that long ago that I lamented the way the mainstream ad agencies were ignoring the Web. One got the impression that they thought it was "kids stuff" and not worthy of their involvement. After all - who wants to sell to a bunch of nerdy geeks who have grown up with the Net-mindset that everything they see should be free and that the Net was no place for commerce.

Since those early days the profile of the average Net surfer has changed a lot - they're now far more likely to have extra money sitting in their pocket or a credit card that hasn't reached its limit.

Clients are also starting to put the pressure on. CEOs, marketing managers and board members all see that the Net is now growing very quickly and with URLs popping up on TV and print-media advertising, many are asking their ad agencies "why aren't we there?"

The result appears to be that these agencies are now running out and having Web sites built for their customers.

Unfortunately there are a few almighty cock-ups going on in the process.

Another "syndrome"
Ad agencies are renowned for their creativity. These guys are good - they can turn a silk purse into a sow's ear. In fact at one time I thought there was nothing they couldn't do.

But then came the Compulsory Retirement Savings Scheme - even these slick psycho-pilots couldn't spin our opinions on that one.

Well the Web appears to be exposing another chink in their previously shiny armor.

Is everyone familiar with the "not invented here" syndrome. Well it is becoming apparent that some of the leading agencies are not calling in companies with previous Internet expertise to help them build Web sites for their clients, they're recruiting the services of "multi-media" companies and academics. In some cases it appears that these MM agencies are closely linked to the ad-agencies either by shareholdings or "close friendships".

Don't get me wrong - these MM companies produce stunning results. Crisp, clean graphics, visually enticing pages and stunning animations. This sounds great doesn't it, and I'm sure the clients are very impressed when they see these fantastic Web sites demonstrated from the hard drive of a top-end, "MIPs to burn" [grunt, grunt!] PowerMac, I know I would be.

So what's the problem?

Well the Internet is NOT a suitable medium (yet) for delivering real high-power mutli-media content. Most of us are stuck behind a comparatively slow 28.8Kbps modem which makes the delivery of video, audio or even huge static images somewhat akin to trying to suck up a thickshake through a soft-drink straw. You can do it but it's going to take a lot of time and you'll probably get very frustrated in the process.

Want an example?

Take a look at the Toyota Australia Web site.

The first thing you'll probably notice is that the front page carries nearly 200Kbytes of graphics - but all you get for the effort are three postage-stamp-sized animated GIFs that masquerade as video clips.

There's no information there - this is just sizzle and this kind of sizzle isn't well matched to the limits of existing dial-up Net technology.

Also cast your eye along the bottom of the screen at all those icons that represent links for obtaining plug-ins. When you see QuickTime, RealAudio, Java, Shockwave and iChat logos littered about like that you know this was not built by someone who has to endure the Net through a dial-up connection and probably has little empathy for those that do.

Now here's the Aardvark Challenge:

How many mouse-clicks, how long, and how many KBytes of downloaded graphics do you think it will take to find out the specifications for a Toyota Camry V6 Wagon? Remember - the accepted industry norm is that information on a Web site should never be more than 3-4 mouse clicks away from the front-page.

It will come as no surprise to find out that the designers of the Toyota Australia site, Spike Wireless reportedly have a very "close relationship" with the ad-agency that commissioned this inefficient and decidedly unergonomic site.

I thought the Net was multi- media?

What a sad site!
But Kiwis are better - right?
Of course we all know that Kiwis are smarter than Aussies right? We'd never make that kind of silly mistake would we? Our ad-agencies would be smart enough to call in the right people wouldn't they?

Well let's take a look at the newly launched Toyota New Zealand site.

Hmmm... there's another one of those "do-nothing" graphic-rich front pages. Not as bad as the Aussie one though, it is much faster loading.

Let's go in.... Erk! what's that? Another animated GIF acting as a wannabe video clip - but again, it's nowhere near as big as the Aussie one so we can't complain. It's more than a little disappointing though when you find that you can't click on that Camry and go straight to the info.

Let's look at this second page though. It takes a lot of space to say nothing. It's really an obstacle in the way of finding the info we probably came to get.

Apply the Aardvark Challenge again:

Starting back at the front page - how many clicks and KBYtes of graphics does it take to find the specifications for a V6 Camry wagon?

Pretty lame isn't it?

But wait - there's less!

Once you get to the point where you've created your "infosheet", you can't even see the results unless you're prepared to download several megabytes of Adobe Acrobat Reader.

GET REAL GUYS!!! There's nothing wrong with a Web browser for perusing or even printing this kind of info - to expect Net users to spend more money and waste more time getting a plug-in just to see your client's blurb is downright stupid!

But wait - there's even less!

What ever you do - DO NOT try to resize your browser window after you've wound your way down to the information you've sought. Why not? Try it and see - pull in the side of your browser window so as to reduce the visible area. Release your mouse and then pull the window back out again. Impressed? This is one poorly designed and implemented site!

I hate to be so negative but it really makes me cry when I see a big-name company such as Toyota attaching their name to a site which seems to run counter to all of the principles on which they base their own products.

Toyota have an enviable reputation as being a highly efficient manufacturer that builds its vehicles in response to market demands and the results of exhaustive customer and critiques. It must be a huge embarrassment to them therefore that this site is an ergonomic disaster and obviously wasn't even run through even the most rudimentary of tests before its launch. It took me just 5 minutes to find the resize bug.

If this site were a car it would be a 1963 Skoda with the steering wheel on the back parcel shelf, the brake pedal on the bonnet and nobody would have checked to see if the engine ran. Sure, it will take you to the information you want (eventually) - but it's probably going to be quicker and cheaper to actually take a visit to the dealer where at least you can lick the duralube off the dipstick and try to catch the salesman's tie in the electric windows. Hang on a minute! Maybe this site is really clever after all!

If you look at the credits page you'll see that the University of Otago was (ir)responsible for the mechanics of the site's operation. Come on guys - you should know all about the importance of testing software, if not then you'd better add it to your courses "quick smart".

I don't know who was responsible for the overall site design but for goodness sake - get some help. What's wrong with a simple search engine on the front page so that users can just type in the model of vehicle they're interested in and jump straight to relevant information. Are you listening guys.. this is called "interactivity" and it's one of the most significant differences between the Web and broadcast or print media.

Over the past (almost) two years I've highlighted some pretty bad sites but most of them could be forgiven to some degree by the obviously limited budgets that were involved. Many were "home grown" and created by owner-operators. Toyota has no such excuse for this abomination!

As a footnote... while trolling around for Toyota stuff, I came across this site which has been built by the infamous Dave Blyth. I won't debate the aesthetics of the site - but guess what? I found the info on a V6 Camry in about 30 seconds with just ONE mouse click!

It strikes me as very odd that a small-town Toyota dealer had the sense to build a site that works, while head-office with their bottomless marketing budget ended up with such an ergonomic nightmare.

Guess which one used the high-powered, high-charging ad agency with multi-media production connections. Guess which site cost the most to build.

Some warnings...
Big-name enterprises should be aware that most ad-agencies have yet to demonstrate an adequate understanding of the Net as an advertising medium.

Ad agencies should be aware that while most multi-media studios are fully aware of the potential of the Web, far too many of them appear unwilling to accept its limitations. As a result, their productions far too often fail to live up to expectations and simply serve to annoy Net users who are unforgiving of sites that are slow or have poor ergonomics.

Multi-media studios should be aware that just because you can use the latest and greatest Internet technology such as streaming video, AVI files, shockwave programs, Java, etc. is no reason that you should. Keep it simple - your audience isn't that stupid! Before you get smug about your latest creation - put it in front of an "average Net user" with an "average Net connection" and see what happens.

The Toyota NZ site is a brilliant example of techno-overkill. Axe the PDF stuff, add a search engine to the front page, flatten the structure of the site so that the real information is just one or two mouse clicks away and switch your focus away from one of showing how clever you are to one of connecting the prospective customer with the information they seek in the most effective manner.

Instead of showing off - why didn't the site designers spend more time providing "value". Simple things such as some method for contacting dealers directly from the Web? Give them an email address or use an email to fax service so that customer queries can be delivered direct from the web site to their fax machine.

There is no excuse for the Toyota NZ site.

Nobody knows it all!
I Can't Believe It's True!

Well there's no way I could top the Toyota site in ICBIT this week so you'll just have to say "Aardvark's using RealAudio, I can't believe it's true", after all - haven't I said that audio and video on the Net is a blatant waste of bandwidth?

Click Here to Listen
(Warning, International IP charges apply)

Well I'd really appreciate your feedback so that I know whether the waste is worth it.

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