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13 October 1997

A RealAudio® Interview with Steve..???
Warning, International IP Charges May Apply

Aardvark hit by virus!
No, it was not the Michael Angelo virus, nor the marijuana virus which upset the production of this week's Aardvark column - but the common cold.

Maybe I over-interacted at the Interactive 97 conference earlier this week or something but what ever the cause, I've been knocked for six my a terrible lurgy which has left me coughing, sneezing and oozing from all visible orifices - not a pleasant sight!

However - The who must go on, so to speak, so I bring you this edition of Aardvark Weekly from my death-bed.

Unfortunately, as if plague wasn't enough, Windows 95 decided to play an evil trick on me today also. Don't you just love those little messages that Windows occasionally pops up which say:

System Resources are Dangerously Low

They usually then suggest that you exit some programs before continuing - but you know that by the time you've seen the first message it's too late.

What that first message should say is:

"You haven't rebooted for two days mate - you're well and truly stuffed!

followed by a few extra alerts such as:

Windows is now corrupting some really important files but we're not telling you which ones

So... five hours was lost today to restoring those "real important files" so that my desktop system would boot up in anything other than "Safe" mode.

Funny isn't it - all I had running at the time was MS Word and Paintshop Pro. You'd think that 64MB of RAM was enough wouldn't you?

Of course - this lost time has meant that I've yet to install and test MSIE4.0. Part of the reason for this is that it refuses to install on my other system running NT4.0 without the latest service patches. Yes, that's right, I'm going to have to rake up the patch CD first, then install IE 4.0. Sigh!.

But... 3rd party reports are pretty positive about IE4, the only caveat being that you shouldn't use the Active Desktop unless you've got plenty of RAM installed - and based on my experiences of today, if you're using Windows 95 then there isn't enough RAM on the whole planet to qualify as "enough".

Bank Direct certainly wasn't
I think most people agree that the ASB FastNet online banking service is great. Not only is Net banking more convenient for the average Netizen, it's also working out to be a lot cheaper as the banks continue in their relentless drive to remove all traces of human life from their operations.

These days, if you have to ask how much an "over the counter" transaction will cost - you can't afford one. Even ATM charges are often fifty cents each (or more if you use the wrong ATM!).

Net banking offers to bring those costs down and, due to the extinction of virtually all the "real people" that might otherwise be required to assist you in your banking, even offer you better rates on your mortgage.

It was unfortunate then to see ASB really mess up with their Bank Direct site. "A good idea - flawed in implementation" is the general consensus of those who have emailed me over the past week.

Indeed, for the first few days of its operation there were some very strange things going on with the routing for this site. Traffic to www.bankdirect.co.nz was disappearing off-shore to the USA before winding its way back in this general direction. As a result, the performance of the site was very poor. At one stage I measured ping times of around THREE SECONDS for the trip!

To make things worse, it appears that the Web pages were designed by someone who probably couldn't even spell HTML let alone create any that even remotely adhered to the W3C standards.

Here are some points to ponder:

  • Why are they using a BETA version of the Lotus Domino Web server for something as important and sensitive as an online banking site?
  • Why do most of the Web pages that make up the site contain a huge number of basic HTML coding errors that drive "code verifier" programs into spasms of complaint?
  • Why can't they build pages that load progressively instead of making users wait around for ages until the very last page element has loaded before you see anything other than the background image?
  • Why can't they decide whether they're a radio station or a bank? I don't go to my local branch to hear the latest pop-music or news headlines, why would I expect to find the same thing here?
  • Why do they build a site that relies so much on Javascript that at least one part of it simply doesn't work if the user has a non-Javascript enabled browser or if they're smart enough to have disabled their Javascript in accord with the currently active CERT Javascript security alert (strange for a bank don't you think?).
  • Why do they have that tiny little empty frame at the bottom of the screen?
  • Why do they use that hideously hard to read ultra-small font on this page and a few others?
  • Have they tried viewing that same page with images turned off? (hint - white text on a white background is decidedly "low contrast").
There are many other problems with this site, problems that could have been caught with a simple pre-launch site-survey. Let me ask YET AGAIN... why do those with the most money to spend seem to think that after spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to have a site developed there is no point in spending just a few thousand more to make sure it works well - or even at all?

Fortunately they've fixed the routing problems but all the other complaints remain valid. Here's hoping that they'll actually buy a release version of Lotus Domino and hire someone who knows the difference between HTML and a dog's breakfast to fix those pages.

Who's dropped the ball?

Some things never change
Maybe Spike's Listening?
Remember my gripes about the Toyota NZ and Toyota Australia Web sites?

Well for a brief moment on Sunday, I thought that Spike Wireless, creator of the Toyota Australia site might have been listening. For a while, visitors to the site simply got a holding page (with broken HTML) that suggested the site was being "improved".

Unfortunately when it came back up again - I couldn't see any changes at all :-(

Mind you - I don't recall seeing quite so many ads in the frame at the bottom of this page. Now I wonder... are Toyota Australia so cheap that their Web site has to also act as an advertising billboard for such seemingly unrelated businesses as Time Magazine, Magazine's Direct, Ticketek and the Country Music Association of Australia - or maybe this was Spike's way of keeping the costs down? I don't know but I suspect it works against the effect of Toyota's own branding on this site.

I also note that the Toyota NZ site, which was proudly touted as not being just a collection of static HTML pages but rich with information plucked directly from Toyota's own computerised database, has already started to suffer a gradual decline.

Regular visitors to the site will have noticed that a gradually increasing number of the graphics are disappearing - to be replaced by the "broken graphic" icon.

What does this say about the integrity of Toyota's Database I wonder?

It would appear that Toyota's site may be shaping up as one of those "build it and forget" it sites that litter the Web. How often do you visit a site that claims to be regularly updated but which has remained unaltered for the past six months? I wonder just how effective these things are.

The questions that must be posed are:

  • Does Toyota know their graphics are broken?
  • If not - does this mean that nobody is checking the site or that nobody has been visiting it and providing feedback?
  • If they are aware of the broken graphics why haven't they fixed them?
  • Do they take more care with the assembly and repair of their cars?
The bottom line is - a Web site is a dual edged sword. It's your chance to show the world how good - or how BAD your attitudes to your products, services and market are.

Toyota NZ - if you're not going to fix it - take it down, I suspect it's doing you more harm than good.

I hate being so negative - but what can I say?

The Power to Break Free!
One of the more interesting news items this week was the story that in the UK they're about to start testing the use of mains power lines for Internet access.

I know I've always wondered why we have such duplication in our street wiring - power wires over here and telephone wires over there. Hell - the "bandwidth" used by mains power is only a very small percentage of that available and is centred around 50Hz, why can't we carry voice and digital data on a higher frequency "subcarrier" and therefore end Telecom's "ownership" of "the last mile".

Well, there are some problems. Firstly, power lines are incredibly noisy things, electrically speaking. Many of the appliances we use have electric motors in them which create a huge amount of interference even at quite high frequencies and even the thermostat in your hot water heater can cause a sizable spike when it switches off or on.

Secondly, there's power transformers - those lumpy boxes you see sitting atop power polls or bolted to a concrete pad at almost every street corner. Unfortunately they are a brick-wall to the high-frequencies that would be needed to carry voice or digital data.

Neither of these problems are insurmountable however and we already have the technology to get around them - it's just a case of doing so at a cost-effective price.

With the huge amount of money that could be made by offering an alternative to Telecom's "last mile" of wire to the average household or business, I'm surprised that there aren't more aggressive efforts being made here in NZ. Let's face it - we're renowned world-wide for our innovation in the field of electronics. In fact, chances are that there are already some very smart people here working on the problem. I think Telecom should be worried - their monopoly on the wire to your phone may soon be at an end.

There are obvious benefits to Net users in all of this. Imagine if your local power company became an ISP and could give you a full-time, high speed (say 1M bit per second) Internet connection without tying up your phone-line. How much fun could we all have with that I wonder??

Think about it - power and connectivity all in the same convenient three-pronged outlet.

Here's a plug for the Net

TV Chat
Listen to Steve!
An Interview with Steve someone
I dropped in to the Interactive 97 conference held at the Auckland Sky Tower last week. Many of the "big names" in the industry were there, including a big-wig from overseas, someone called Steve ... something or other...

Of course I managed to get an interview with Steve - albeit in true "Aardvark Style".

A recording of the interview is the subject of this week's Real Audio component of Aardvark Weekly. I'm afraid my nose is too stuffed up to record the whole column this week so you'll just have to make do with the Interview.

I'm actually thinking of extending this RealAudio interview spot into a regular component of Aardvark Weekly in which I'll ridicule and embarrass your favourite industry celebrities.

If this is something you'd like to see regularly, take a listen to this week's interview then email me with a vote for the concept or, even better, a suggestion of someone you'd like me to interview. Hey - a few volunteers would be even better!

I Can't Believe It's True!

Now our government is often unfairly labeled as full of bureaucracy and red tape - making it unreasonably difficult to get access to important people, services or information. Well it's all TRUE!

Check out the URL associated with this page - I think it lends support for the claim that there are too many ministers in government.

Tau Who-nare?

Yes Tau, we do know you're a minister, there's no need to go overboard!

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