Balkanization of the Net

by P.R.Banks

Telecom New Zealand recently opened it's entry into the world of Internet Service Providing and 'content' provision. Another sign that the commercial acceptance of the Internet is well underway. But with it, something is increasingly being lost. You see, Telecom, in it's infinite wisdom has chosen to make their pages NetScape 2.0 compliant.

No doubt many of you out there in webland will be saying "Why is that a problem? I can use it.". And indeed somewhere in the neighbourhood of 90% of the web users out there can indeed take advantage of these pages by running NetScape 2.0, simply by virtue of having either an Intel based box or a Macintosh machine. A simplistic look at the situation would say this is good coverage of the target audience.

What they are missing is the roots of the technology they are using. HTML, and to a degree it's precursor SGML, was designed to make the information distinct from the layout. Or implicitly, and often fairly explicitly, the message was simple - the content is more important than the layout. The layout can be customised to the users content and satisfaction, not the providers. This allowed a wonderful thing, by standardising the information content the output could be equally easily rendered on any machine.

This means even machines like the well obsolete VT100 dumb terminal (hooked up to an old mainframe of course) could be used to access and read the information with almost equal ease as a nice new flash machine. Given the tendency for old machines to be donated on, and thus often still be in use in the poorer sectors of society & the world, this allowed the users of the older hardware just the same access ability as the more fortunate.

A degree of technological equalising in the information stakes.

But NetScape browsers do something contrary to this ideal. They provide proprietary extensions that, generally, only NetScape can handle. MicroSoft's Internet Explorer does this as well, as does Spry's Navigator. Each talks their own dialect with their own distinct extensions and ways of doing those extensions. Furthermore each company is also picky about what machine and operating system types they support.

NetScape supports Unix, Windows and Macintosh based machines & OSes. Microsoft, oddly enough, supports Windows. Spry tries akin to Netscape's effort. Do you think they support Acorn, Amiga, Apollo, Atari and all the other sundry machines out there that are either no longer produced or are simply not as widely accepted as other brands of machine? Nope. Yet I do know that for Acorn, Amiga and Atari owners web browsers do exist and work quite well - for non NetScape, Navigator or Explorer optimised pages.

Why? Because they support the original standard that the others took and modified to make their own dialect. No doubt you have seen this point made elsewhere on the net before. And the oft cried rejoinder is "We need to push the edge of technology to get it to advance!".

Sure, we do. I agree. But at the same time we need to think about why we are 'pushing the edge'. Is such pushing actually helping what you trying to do? The extensions the various companies have created are ones that try to address various shortcomings the HTML language has when you try to move away from straight information providing. Sometimes those extensions are the only way to do things in a clear and concise way.

All too often though the extensions are used simply because they are new and are available. Without thought or contemplation of the consequences of that act. Recently three sites opened, including Telecom's effort, that all required NetScape 2.0 as a minimum. All well and fine, advancing the technology right?

I haven't visited those sites, not because I can't - if I really wanted to I could crank up my PC emulator and run NetScape, but because I object to them moving so far away from the standard that they now no longer even provide minimal use to a non-NetScape user. Take Telecom's site, within a few days of it opening someone has already provided a set of linking pages for them that allow non-NetScape users to access the pages.

This begs me to ask the question, why did they force NetScape 2.0 compliance on the users? It smacks of infatuation with the technology, instead of sensible use of the technology. Sure it makes sense commercially, by making the pages proprietary you force people to buy the tools for accessing the system off you. And given that Telecom has licensed a special copy of the NetScape browser off NetScape this tactic is clearly exactly what they are doing.

It is easy to see what is happening here. The original aim, of forcing the technology on, has been subverted into something else entirely. We are seeing the deliberate and systematic balkanization of the net. The very antithesis of what the WWW was and is about. With the introduction of commerce on the net we provided an almost empty niche that companies could slide into. Capitalistic ideals of market share and of 'owning' the client began to brought to bear and the technology race began.

Certainly it has done wonders to advance the state of the art in HTML, but at what cost? We are starting to be in danger of loosing the very thing that gave the net it's ground-breaking power - it's interconnected nature. We now have nation states loosed, not organised by geography but now organised by software allegiance. NetScape, a company entirely based in the market niche that is the net, has a wide following. Microsoft, in it's attempts to repeat the succesful domination of the OS market and to repeat the excessive abuses of power it actions in the OS market, is trying to carve out it's nation state as well.

On all sides we have private areas where only the members can go, all proclaiming this territoriality with pride by such phrases as "NetScape enhanced." & "Works best with Internet Explorer". Sometimes the need is genuine and the sign isn't pride but more a reflection of fact. But such is often rare. Too often I meet pages that could have easily been made HTML 2 compliant and NetScape enhanced without the two goals interfering.

Think it isn't happening?

Take a look around you next time you surf. How many pages do you meet that proclaim they require certain brands of browsers? Or simply require such browsers without telling you? How many pages note that they are HTML 2 compliant? And how many pages are sufficiently well designed so that you can navigate them with lynx, if you so require?

I point all this out, partly, because I have been asked why I don't use background colours, more images or image maps, frames or even image alignment modifiers to the IMG tag. It is simple, I don't use them because I don't need to use them. The information, the content, of this site is laid out sufficiently well, and cleanly, with just pure HTML 2.0 that I don't need to use more advanced features.

So I don't.

It is part of a simple philosophy - only use the tool if it is appropriate to the job. By remembering this, hopefully we can avoid the factionalisation of the net and still force technology along.

Philip R. Banks
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