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Still Jeff

15th of May 2000

     Everybody says the Web is ugly, unreliable and hard to use. In the May 15, 2000 issue of Forbes, Daniel Lyons tells us about people who are trying to do something about that. The main beef is with the browser, the staple of Net-alive desktops throughout the world. The Web's early designers probably erred by dumbing it down to make it all work.

     Roy Stringer of Amaze Ltd. believes the basic problem is that typical Web sites arrange information in a hierarchical structure. This leads to continuous wrong turns. A better approach, Stringer reasons, would be to arrange a Web site's information as points on a globe. This structure, called a "navihedron", makes each point no more than three clicks away from each other. Later this summer Amaze Ltd. will release its software free for any Web site to use.

     Stringer's experiment points up a growing dissatisfaction with the way the Web looks and works. Many critics blame the browser and are trying to develop new ways to navigate the Net. Several companies, including Excite@Home and Microsoft are developing three dimensional Web interfaces in their research labs. Later this year, Amaze Ltd. will debut its own browser, specially geared to animations and video.

     But displacing such a pervasive, if antiquated, software tool as the browser will be a huge challenge. Jakob Nielsen, a well-known usability expert, says, "For seven years we've had close to zero progress in enhancing the user's main tool for using the Internet." The big problem with the typical browser is that it relies on the metaphor of pages in a book; you can view only one page at a time, then click on another.

     Other beefs about the browser? Links go in only one direction, so it's difficult to retrace your steps. The arranging of information sometimes makes no sense, and many sites are just plain ugly. It may seem unfair to blame the browsers for sins of bad design, but some say it contributes to the mess by forcing designers to build in a limited way — the stack of pages.

     Stuart Card and his research group at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center are working on an alternative called Web Forager which lets you gather dozens of Web pages into a "book" and store these live links on a "shelf." Take down a book and you can flip through the pages without waiting for each to load. Look at several at one time in a 3-D workspace. Another PARC-related effort from Inxight Software aims to let users view a picture of an entire Web site before diving in.

     For now, some companies are trying to make the best of a bad situation by creating Web-based applications that hide the browser. Unext.com makes online educational software that runs on a browser; once the program is running, the browser disappears. DoDots Inc. sells software that lets you view a handful of miniature Web pages, each in its own little window, without having to run a browser.

     Another effort from designer Theodore Nelson, inventor of the term "hypertext", seeks to create an entirely new structure. He envisions a "floating world" in which the user "flies" through 3-D space as objects morph and pass around him. Just one problem — he has no idea how long it will take to make it work. For now; the only consolation is this — even a bad browser is better than none at all.

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