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Web sites cater to connections in 1999

December 24, 1998
Web posted at: 11:20 PM EST

by Jeff Walsh and Emily Fitzloff


(IDG) -- With higher-bandwidth Internet access becoming a reality for more and more users, 1999 will see many Web sites respond by offering different visitor experiences based on bandwidth.

Although the concept has not yet become mainstream, a number of sites are being built with bandwidth-intensive areas that are loaded with goodies such as video and audio for visitors whose connections can handle it.

At present, most of the companies looking at offering these two-tier, or n-tier, architectures are entertainment sites that want to give visitors more multimedia -- such as television-quality streaming video and audio -- than conventional business sites. But others are starting to follow suit, offering visitors two tiers as a means of differentiating themselves by giving customers a richer electronic-commerce experience.

"Customers like Yahoo are telling us that they want to move to n-tier architectures," said Jim Goetz, general manager at the Insoft Division of International Network Services, a consultancy in Sunnyvale, Calif. "Basically, they want to be able to deliver different types of services to consumers, as opposed to what business people coming in over T1 lines may see."

Although the temptation to load up a site with flashy high-speed content grows as more users speed up their Internet connections, Web veterans warn that low-speed visitors must not be excluded.

One executive at an online merchant said the company cannot risk alienating their low-bandwidth customers.

"We have traditionally designed for the least common denominator, and we think 28.8 [Kbps] is the least common denominator," said Brian Sroub, vice president of marketing at, an online software store, based in Sunnyvale, Calif. "We may dabble [in high-speed content] as we go into 1999, as we always dabble in everything."

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Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen, a former executive at Sun Microsystems and now an independent consultant, cautioned that the Web is not yet up to the task of delivering high-bandwidth content.

"Right now, the Web is so slow that even the fastest line is going to suffer with multimedia and get in the way of the user's goals, and reduce the quality of the user experience," Nielsen said.

"It's an extra burden on the user, too. People are on the Web not to enjoy your Web design, but to get something done," Nielsen added.

Of course, the development of n-tier architectures will create a new set of technology problems. For example, most Web authoring tools are geared toward developing an entire site, but typically not aimed at repurposing the same site for different user bases. Developers who flow their content through templates will find themselves having to create new templates for both higher- and lower-bandwidth connections.

As for creating the tiered content, Web developers are already having to tackle issues such as authoring for older browsers without Dynamic HTML; delivering specific versions of pages for both Microsoft and Netscape browsers; and ensuring consistent functionality on Windows, Macintosh, and other platforms. Also, today there is no way for a Web server to immediately detect the bandwidth of the user accessing the site, only the user's platform and browser type. Nielsen said he expects future browsers to be able to pass bandwidth and more client information to the server.

However, there are some technologies already available that take bandwidth and end-user capabilities into account when delivering multimedia content. Macromedia has a technology called AfterShock that lets the developer create different user experiences automatically. Users who visit an AfterShock-enabled site and do not have the Macromedia plug-in will automatically receive a Java version of the content.

AfterShock also reduces the need for branch Web pages, which greet all users with the same home page, but then ask them to select a low- or high-bandwidth experience, sending them on separate paths accordingly. Nielsen and other Web developers maintain that there should be one point of entry into a site for all users, but that the higher-bandwidth content should simply be integrated into a single site instead of creating two diverging paths.

"I'm not saying multimedia is useless, but only give it to people when they ask for it. If you dump it on them to begin with, it slows down the navigation and distracts [users] from their mission," Nielsen said.

One Web site that strives to keep lower-bandwidth connections in mind is Quokka Sports, a digital media company based in San Francisco. The company offers site visitors real-time interactive broadcasts of global sporting events, including the upcoming 2000 Olympics, and is implementing digital technologies such as Macromedia Flash.

"For the work we do with the Olympic Committee, it is important to consider the lower-speed connections, because we have people accessing the site from remote locations with very old browsers," said Bill Schaefer, vice president of technology at Quokka.

"With the Whitbread [international sailing race], we offered warnings to let people know when they were accessing the higher-speed stuff. We found, though, that the majority of our users come in at ISDN [speeds] or above, and a significant number come in at T1 or above, because most access the site while they're at work," Schaefer said.

Schaefer added that Quokka will continue to "keep an eye on the lower-bandwidth connections," but that the company will do so less as it grows and pushes the multimedia envelope further.

Losing sight of the low end can be easy with the increasing penetration of high-speed connection technologies such as cable modems and Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL). But there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg syndrome: Are high-speed connections becoming more popular because users want to access high-end areas of Web sites, or are designers making their content more complex because they believe more visitors have connections that can accommodate it?

One analyst said that users really just want higher-speed access to standard sites.

"For folks who are used to slower connections, cable modems, and DSL are drastically improving just the speed of getting text-based stuff," said Michael Harris, president of Kinetic Strategies, in Phoenix.

One IS manager whose company upgraded to DSL did so for some very basic reasons.

"We implemented DSL because we wanted to help people speed their research and find things better on the Web," said Erik Salmonson, an IS manager at Zimmermann Crowe Design, in San Francisco. "As the IS guy, I wanted to be able to get software updates quicker."

The goal of the site, not the end-user's bandwidth, should determine the content, one Web developer said.

"The nature of the project itself indicates how you're going to design," said Ben Rigby, a principal at Akimbo Designs, in San Francisco. "If you're making a movie Web site, the people there are not going to want to read about [the movie]. They want to see it, and they will wait longer to see what they want to see."

Jeff Walsh is an InfoWorld reporter. Emily Fitzloff is an InfoWorld senior writer. Matthew Nelson also contributed to this article.

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