Web Pages for the Rest of Us
Astounded by the explosion of the Web? You ain't seen nothing yet; new tools are making on-line publishing easier than ever
P> SAN FRANCISCO -- Creating content for the World Wide Web isn't as simple as desktop publishing, at least not yet. Programmers have had to learn a whole new idiom called HTML -- hypertext markup language -- to place corporate and government materials on the new medium. But that is beginning to change -- just as assuredly as the arcane commands of the DOS programming language eventually were supplanted by the more "intuitive" windows-like interface.
In the next year, new technology developments at Netscape Communications Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Silicon Graphics Inc., all based in Mountain View, Calif., will make creating a Web page as simple as producing a document on your word processor.
"People are now spending as much time on-line as they are watching videotapes of movies," said Marc Andreessen, vice president of technology and co-founder of Netscape, at Web Innovation, the summit of marketing professionals and Web content creators in San Francisco recently. "The Web is growing by 20 percent per month. This is creating a compelling environment for content development." The Internet is changing from a series of chat rooms -- separate from business functions -- to a real-world marketing tool. It is increasing the speed at which commerce and government are conducted.
But Web authoring tools have so far been too "computer-centered -- not human-centered," said Mark Pesche, a major player in the computer industry and co-creator of the virtual reality modeling language tool for 3-D graphics on the Internet. "Sensual computing -- putting people in the center of the loop -- makes more sense," he said.
No Need to Start from Scratch
A new tool for content developers, called Netscape Navigator Gold, is one of the technologies that will lead this sensual evolution. The tool enables on-line publishers to create and edit content within the Netscape Navigator, a leading Web browser. It also allows them to publish content directly onto computer servers.
For example, instead of creating a Web page from scratch, professionals can tap a template and modify it. It can be made larger or smaller. Typefaces can be changed. So can colors. Hyperlinks also can be created easily and dropped into a document. "You can create company sites with sales and marketing information and catalogs in less than a minute. And it can be done locally or remotely over the Internet," said Andreessen. "It makes managing a Web site easy. You can go into records on a database, from Oracle or Sybase, and create HTML pages on the fly."
Another new set of tools enabling these changes is called Cosmo. Made by Silicon Graphics, the suite of software will be used for content creation, application development, multimedia browsing and media asset management. This lets publishers -- and these days, that could be anyone with a computer and an Internet link -- develop cross-platform applications and interactive multimedia content for deployment either on enterprise networks or the Internet. "By delivering 3-D graphics, multimedia and interactivity to the Web, Cosmo opens up a whole new world of exciting applications for content creators," said Tom Jermoluk, president and COO of Silicon Graphics.
For example, the Cosmo Create software combines several multimedia authoring tools to let creative designers produce entirely new interactive experiences on the Web. The Cosmo MediaBase lets public relations professionals manage the content of Web sites. The software provides capabilities for storage, retrieval, delivery and management of multimedia content. This makes it easier to browse and query on the Web. Audio is taking off on the Web as well. Now Web users can send a voice message to a prospect, without incurring long distance telephone charges. Amail is the solution. Amail is audio e-mail produced by Connect Inc., Baltimore. Users can plug into the Internet with any touch-tone or cellular phone and send an audio message to anyone on the Web. A special "group call" feature enables the user to send a message to multiple recipients.
Visual Links to Databases
But the real key may be creating multimedia links between organizational databases and Web pages so that images, charts and data can be pulled from organizational databases and placed on the Internet. Palo Alto, Calif.-based Spider Technologies offers just such a tool, known as a visual Web and database application builder. Computer professionals can easily create visual Web pages linked to databases using the tool, much as they would do when making a PowerPoint presentation on their PC. Data can be made into charts simply. Charts can be dragged and dropped into a Web application and can remain connected to a database, where even more information and visual imagery can be obtained. The underlying technology for this market was developed for a completely different business -- connecting graphical user interfaces and relational databases.
What's more, at Web Innovation, the company debuted a special Web server that accelerates the process of obtaining data over the Web for surfers. Spider Technologies, started just last year, already has received its first round of venture capital financing from private investors. It also has several international customers. CEO Zack Rinat left Silicon Graphics to form the company.
Rinat said the visual database application builder provides a robust visual development environment. There are three main windows in the development environment. On one side is the database viewer. It provides a way to visualize the database for people who are not experts in databases. "We use the file metaphor you find in Windows. You click on the database and you can see all of the tables," said Rinat. "You can drag and drop tables from the main environment window. You develop an application and save it to a file. So you as a developer don't need to know about the structure of the file. The software takes care of the project management so you can concentrate on developing content." The company's server technology enables corporate Web sites to handle tens of thousands of users who would like to access the data. It scales across multiple hardware platforms. And it also provides reporting and system management.
Thus far, the main customers are Fortune 1000 companies. For example, one customer is the Investor's Group, an investment banking house in Canada. It has a prototype that lets customers access portfolios of stock over the Web. "If you think about this, it is really a replacement to the monthly statement that is usually sent out. It provides much better service," said Rinat. "Customers receive the data instantly. And the company saves on printing and mailing costs."
Another customer, Mibor, based in Indianapolis, puts real estate listings on the Web. The company has found that the visual Web server has opened a whole new market for them -- relocation.
"It is a whole new way to conduct business. You click on something and get pictures of houses directly from the database," said Rinat. Visuals are a significant development for the Web, so technologies like this and the others will be a key to its growth. Hopefully, executives said, the hype over the Internet will soon wane, and companies will focus on its business benefits. "Everyone is trying to hit home runs on the Web now. But it might be better to hit singles and doubles, rather than strike out," said Rinat.
So What's the Big Picture?
Rinat's comment is itself indicative of a tectonic shift in the Web market in 1996. If 1995 was the year everyone finally recognized the potential of the World Wide Web, 1996 is the year when companies will put serious money into testing the many fashionable concepts the Web has spawned: electronic commerce, micromarketing, on-line advertising and the electronic government. Early adopters have already tried out the technology; now it's the mainstream's turn. If anyone had doubts on this point, simply consider Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Corp.'s recent formulation of a comprehensive Internet strategy -- which comes after the company had consistently downplayed the Internet's significance.
This shift means a boom for information technology services. The tool vendors noted above, and many others such as the Java programming language from Sun Microsystems, will make a bundle selling their software. These are enabling technologies, and as such only the beginning of the Web market, not the end. Wall Street has already recognized their potential and rewarded their investors accordingly.
But the opportunities are only beginning. An entire industry for designing, building and maintaining a Web presence is emerging. Web pages are also becoming the backbone of a phenomenon known as "Intranets" -- chunks of cyberspace partitioned off into secure sub-networks for use as information-sharing networks within organizations.
And it shouldn't be overlooked that government, at the federal, state and local levels, is a participant. Nearly every federal agency has a Web master and Web presence -- and budgetary pressures are likely to push even more services into cyberspace, which has far lower overhead and transaction costs than paper-based systems. Politicians, in preparation for the upcoming elections, have mapped out campaigning strategies for cyberspace.
Companies from across the information technology software and services business are attacking the many service markets the Web has created. They include systems integrators, Internet service providers, phone companies, cable companies, software houses, computer systems providers, consultancies -- all of which are vying for a piece of the Web action. And it seems likely that for at least the near future there will be plenty of business to go around.
Certainly, there is a fair share of hype and false hope surrounding the industry. Even months ago, many had all but conceded the software industry to Microsoft. The PC revolution, many thought, was essentially over now that everyone had Windows on their desktop computer. So Web hype is partly fueled by the desire that the computer revolution has not ended with Microsoft.
That said, there is something real going on. Hambrecht & Quist, in a recent report called, "Internet: Webbing the Digital Economy," said the Web "will spawn a software industry similar in form and dynamics to, but larger in size than, the client/server software industry." The report identifies 10 distinct software and service segments, and it anticipates fifteenfold growth for the entire market from $260 million in 1995 to $4 billion by the end of the decade.
Even if these figures are adjusted for hype, the Web is still by far the biggest opportunity now, and perhaps ever, in the information technology services business.