arms and the Web

arms and the Web

Personal computers have transformed the way everybody works. Computers are indispensable and ubiquitous -- the laptop symbolizes the road warrior of the '90s as the sample case did the travelling salesman of the '40s. No cubicle is complete without keyboard and screen.

This development baffles economists: while personal computers have transformed business, it is remarkably difficult to show that computers make business people more productive. If computers don't give people an advantage, if the time they save is -- as some studies show -- somehow consumed by the new problems they create, then why does everyone use them?

Business people have used computers not to do more work, but to make their work more impressive.

One answer to this puzzle is plain, although not often acknowledged. In the past twenty years, business people have used personal computers not to do more work, but to make their work look more impressive. Only a few years ago, the last stage in preparing a technical manual was putting a fresh ribbon in the typewriter before typing a clean copy. Today, eye-catching typography and graphic design are the norm in even the most workaday documents. Twenty years ago, prominent scientists prepared important speeches by using several colors of markers to draw their viewgraphs; today, routine clerical reports use elaborate presentation graphics.

It is not at all clear that color laser printed memos or animated presentation graphics make businesses more productive, but they indisputably make individual contributions seem more substantial and more convincing. In the internal competition for recognition and promotion, those first to employ personal computers gained a clear edge. Soon, everyone had to keep up: all memos were typeset and laser printed, all presentations had 3-D graphs and colorful gradients.

Arms races, once begun, are irresistible.

Business people engaged, in short, in an arms race, using the productivity gains of personal computers to fund ever more elaborate and sophisticated internal communications. Arms races, once begun, are irresistible: better printers, better projectors, better computers, better software -- everyone needs to upgrade. Failure to stay current leaves a terrible impression, the stink of failure or ineptitude. Typewriters, handwritten viewgraphs, dot matrix printers: once staples of business communication, these tools can now only be used in marginal contexts.

Arms races continue until they exhaust available resources, until all rivals are vanquished, or until a crisis is reached.

Arms and the Web

A similar arms races shaped the growth of the Web. First-generation pages were gray and plain, suited to the distribution of research preprints that was the Web's original goal. In time, however, new features (the graphical browser), new audiences, and new publishers had their effects. Web pages grew, graphics and showy typography proliferated, plug-ins for animation, sound, video, and virtual reality were all the rage. Cool Site of the Day became the Web's standard-bearer, HotWired became its fashion arbiter, and pundits praised the Web for becoming more and more like television.

This first arms race faltered, around 1997, because it consumed all the available bandwidth.

This first arms race faltered, around 1997, because it consumed all the available bandwidth. Conventional phone lines imposed the 28.8 barrier, while a host of new readers began to read the Web using older hardware, both cut-rate home computers and obsolescent office machines.

Media-rich Web pages took too long to download: readers abandoned the search for Cool because Cool was just too slow. Better graphics and elaborate animation became irrelevant because too many readers couldn't see them; VRML, the darling of the punditry, remained an isolated curiosity: too slow, too limited, and too marginal.

At this writing (mid-1998), the Web arms race has paused. Bandwidth limits have imposed an arms limitation treaty on Cool and Killer Design. Web publishers have taken advantage of the respite to consolidate and rework, and readers enjoy (for now) the benefits of leaner designs and more thoughtful designs.

The arms race is not over, however. It is possible, but unlikely, that technology could break the current bandwidth armistice, that cable modems, ADSL, or some other technological panacea could allow a (temporary) return to the old battlefield of cool design. More likely, though, are new competitions over new issues. The shape of the next escalation is not yet clear, but candidates include:

It is likely that each of these dynamics will have shaped the Web by the year 2000.

Competition in hypertext structure is the least-heralded area on this list, but quiet moves in this direction are already widespread. Managing the structure of huge sites through hand-typed links has proved expensive, leading to the popularity, circa 1996-7, of hierarchical designs obsessed with navigation. Navigation anxiety, in turn, is gradually passing as dynamic, data-backed sites become more common. The last bastion of primitive Web design theory, the monolithic Home Page, is itself being transformed by technologies that let big sites create a new home page for each day or each visitor.

Best of all, many areas of competition in the coming arms race should provide tangible gains to readers. The graphics wars benefited wealthy and trendy publishers, at the expense of others who were left looking tatty and old-fashioned. Attention wars, similarly, benefit large publishers and advertising agencies. Other competitions, however, can benefit readers. Competition to provide portals will yield a host of subsidized services. Competition to provide access to internal business systems yields more efficient and responsive transactions, helping both individuals and companies get what they need when they need it. Thoughtful hypertextuality can provides easy access to information that fits individual needs and desires.

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