Do us a favour, and we’ll take you to court

The rift between early adopters of new technology and vested interests has never seemed so clear.

File-sharing increases the public’s exposure to new acts and new films, and works as huge free advertizing campaigns.

What do the record and film companies do? They sue the file-sharers.

Site make-overs alert organizations to the usability and accessibility problems their sites might have. What do some site owners do? They sue the make-over-makers.

Of course, it is the record companies’ right to decide themselves how and when they go bankrupt. It is the site owners’ right to get prosecuted or sued for breaking disability laws. Yet somehow I cannot shake the notion that a little bit more understanding would go a long way.

building (houses|sites|trust)

DIY is a weird business: it takes a normal concept (building a house) and turns it into something special. It does this, because people in the West have stopped building their own houses. Construction has become a specialty.

This means that from the point of view of the carpet, paint and DIY stores, not just their goods, but also their knowledge has become something valuable:

– “Do I need an undercarpet with this carpet?”

– “Of course you do.”

Does that mean I need the undercarpet? No idea.

Shopping for the new place has made me take a new, fresh look at my own web building business. Websites are funny things: everybody has a fourteen year old cousin who can make them a website for the price of a new mobile phone, or an iPod. But on the other hand, you know that there are websites that cost millions to make. What’s the magical difference? How do you know you have made the right choice for a supplier? Where can you find honest advice?

The answer is of course, as with DIY, that if you invest time, the answers are right there for the taking. But if you had time to invest, you would not be looking for the right supplier in the first place.

It will take dozens of years (probably beyond the lifespan of the web itself) before people will have figured out the web. Until then, suppliers like me should work to build trust, and to earn that trust.

The Comictastic debate: authors vs. authors

Ah, that great promise of the web! Self-publishing, without interference of the type of middlemen who will take 90+ % of your earnings and hardly give something in return.

Comictastic is a computer program for the Apple Macintosh that will collect your favourite webcomics and show them to you. No banner ads, no annoying download waits, just comics, comics, comics.

So what does this have to do with self-publishing? Well, three things really: Comictastic is shareware, distributed from the site of the maker. It satisfied readers’ demands quickly and on a small-scale, the way only the products of small, self-publishing enterpreneurs can. And finally, it royally pisses off the self-publishing authors of web comics, who see their banner advertising schemes circumvented. These advertising schemes carry the huge hosting costs that come with high-bandwidth art like comics.

So there we are, no middle-men to argue our points for us. Just citizens and authors in what appears to be a copyright brawl. None of the participants particularly versed in copyright law, and none of them particularly versed in the law that code may be.

The Bugle and Google

The Hicksville Bugle is a valuable member of the Hicksville community–or at least, so the Bugle’s editors kid themselves. The editors don’t continuously crush beercans against their foreheads, nor have they slept with their under-age cousins within the last month, so they are doing OK.

The Bugle buys a lot of syndicated stories from freelance writers. I know this, because I use Google News to read news stories from across the anglo-protestant world.

So on the one hand, you have Google, a multi-billion dollar world-wide company, with perhaps billions of users, and on the other hand you have … the Hicksville Bugle. Which of the two would win a spitting contest, you think?

The Bugle has had a web site made. On that website, you can read their syndicated stories, or at least you could, if the web developer had not convinced the editors that it would be really nifty (or swell) to install a registration system. That way, the Bugle can find out who the average reader would prefer to have sex with: their under-age wife, their under-age cousin, or their favourite sheep, Flossy.

Google News also had a web site made. Google has a very simple business model: stay on top by letting visitors find the stuff they are looking for on the web.

Here’s how that works on the spiffy Google News website: I punch in a couple of keywords, and get fifty pages of results. The first forty of these pages contain links to the Hicksville Bugle and its cousins. If I click on them, I get taken to the papers’ registration pages. The useful links are burried deep within the search results. Google apparently believes that appeasing the four members of the Bugle’s staff and management is a much better thing to do than to please their visitors.

As for why they would believe that, I don’t know. So far, Google has been doing a lot of things right, so we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Or perhaps it’s just a matter of Brin and Page having been promised access to Flossy.

Ebooks for your Palm Pilot

Even before I was a Project Gutenberg volunteer I wanted to have a PDA, but the expense was always too high to just buy the thing as a vanity object. However, “PG” gave me a reason to buy one, even if it was the cheapest one I could find.

Once I had brought my shiny new Palm Zire home, I started Googling for free ebooks. What a deception! All I could find were links to commercial publishers who provided a few free works as an incentive to buy. Where was the rich repository that the internet promised?

Of course, Project Gutenberg provides loads of gratis electronic texts, but they need to be converted to Palm’s proprietary format.

Later, I found out that there were several sites that provide ready-to-go ebooks for your Palm, if you know how to find them.

So I wrote a small guide that can be found at http://www.xs4all.nl/~collin/freepalmbooks.html. I hope it’s useful.

The last promise of the web

A smart webdeveloper nowadays has a couple of CMSes up his (or her) sleaves that he can sublicense to customers who want to be able to control (part) of their own website. Work that the webdeveloper used to do himself, is now done by somebody at the customer’s.

This is a good development, because it allows one to put responsibilities where they belong. If customers want to change the news, update prices, add more information, they should not have to go through the developer first.

But of course, conservative webdevelopers might see this move to smarter customers as a threat. It used to be the case once that webbuilding was more a craft than anything else. Only a select circle of initiated knew how to build a cross-browser, cross-platform, cross-everything website.

In order to familiarize myself with CMSes, I downloaded and studied a lot of the open source ones. There wasn’t really much choice; a lot of the commercial CMSes cost more in licensing fees than small and medium businesses would ever want to pay for their website.

The problem with all CMSes that I have encountered in this way is that they are too difficult to set up. Weird dependencies (Zope comes with its own webserver!), badly written or non-existent documentation, and even if you do manage to set up the CMS, that’s no guarantee that you will be able to easily convert a site design to it.

Still, I would not have suspected anything wrong with this situation. I can accept that CMSes are incredibly difficult to program, and that support for gratis CMSes therefore tends to lack due to lack of resources.

However, there are tools that are not CMSes, but that offer similar possibilities and that often are (in my experience) extremely easy to set up and maintain. These tools are wikis, blogs, forums and community software (call them the Nukes).

It seems to me that these easier tools have all the potential to supplant CMSes, at least in the non-commercial space.

And by doing so, they bring the possibility to the websurfer to edit the pages he visits, thereby fulfilling the last unfulfilled promise of the web.

See also: The blog systems that made it as CMSes (2010).

Smarter images for the web

Customers often insist on maintaining (part of) their own web sites, and with good reason. They are often perfectly capable to do so. However, some of the things even the amateur web designer takes for granted are completely opaque to people for whom a web page is just an extension of the Powerpoint presentation.

Take images. Apart from legal and aesthetic problems, there are simple logistical problems involved with web images. For instance, you have to give them names that keep working across networks and operating systems. Whoever would have thought that there are operating systems who refuse to load a file called ‘bullet.gif’ if it was referenced in the web page’s code as ‘Bullet.GIF’? It works on Windows, why not elsewhere?!

I wrote a small article on such problems and how to avoid them: “Some guidelines for creating and storing web images”. The article lists the things I remembered my customers stumbling over. Did I forget any major pitfalls? Mention them in the comments.

Book review: Defensive Design for the Web

Defensive Design for the Web deals with preventing common interface design mistakes on e-commerce websites. It shows real world examples of websites getting it wrong and other websites getting it right. By presenting these examples side by side, the reader immediately gets to see why something works (or why it does not).

Read the rest of this review at evolt.org.