Spectrum Special: Report on Web 98 West 7 Jul 98

Reported, written and edited by David Duberman for editorial/ subscription inquiries, send duberman@dnai.com
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Report on Web 98 West: A Developer's Conference by Howard Dyckoff Over 12,000 developers of Web sites and Web products converged on San Francisco's Moscone Center for this year's Web Development Conference. The emphasis was on technique: site design, programming, customer relationships, managing data, site security. This was a conference for Web site developers: The conference sessions continued beyond the two-day Expo. A large number attended the full conference and participated in the tutorial program as well. The dominant demographic was a 20-something with one to two years of Web site-development experience, or a corporate type needing a crash course in intranet/extranet skills. Yes, there was a smattering of gray hair, mostly among the programmers who came to broaden their skills and applications knowledge. In keeping with the "Web summit" motif and this youthful demographic, conference organizers provided both a conference lounge for ad-hoc discussions and a 20-foot vertical climbing wall (with supportive spotters) for the more adventurous. Web 98 featured over 150 classes in six tracks -- Strategy, Information Design, Visual Design, Programming, Usability and Backend Techniques-- focusing on every phase of creating, marketing and evolving successful Web sites. Tutorials also covered these six areas in one- and two-day sessions. These included two different Java tutorials (introductory and intermediate), Intro to Perl programming, site design and usability tutorials, a nuts-and-bolts session on E-commerce, and an in-depth review of XML with lots of Web site visits to show how it was applied . (Since the conference program was so broad and detailed, I recommend visiting the Web 98 site and reviewing the session topics and speaker information: http://www.Web98.com/1998/west/tracks.htm) Among the Open Sessions (open also to Expo attendees) was a presentation by Jerry Allaire (founder and VP of Technology at Allaire Corp, makers of ColdFusion) on the near future of Web development and production. The main thrust of his talk was the need to develop the tools and production mindset for Web site content output, akin to that of magazines and publishing houses, effectively recasting the model of Web development. One key to this is better RAD tools with greater intelligence and automation of tasks, allowing millions and tens of millions of lines of code (HTML, XML, Java, and scripting) to be produced each year, to develop the thousands and tens of thousands of new Web-based applications that are needed now and in the future. Allaire spoke of "transactive content" that combines content with both interactivity and business transactions in the same space. "The Web is at the center of our changing institutions and the way that individuals will participate in them," he said, a world where content and interactivity will coalesce into domain-specific enclaves (even the user interface and media types could become dynamic and domain-specific). Thus, sites and applications will have to changed and reinvented in the same rapid time scale. In another open session, Jakob Nielsen, Web usability guru and distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems, presented his five-year industry outlook in a talk titled "Web 2003." Nielsen saw a world transformed by myriad small, hand-held Web devices and a revolution in commerce and finance. He also lead several classes on Web-site usability Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) led the opening event, in which a remarkable panel of artist/technologists explored the boundaries between the new world of digital media and the real world. This included SRL's Mark Pauline, Eric Paulos (currently working on tele-presence and robotics at UC-Berkeley), Eduardo Kac of the Chicago Art Institute, and Natalie Gernjako (a Xerox PARC alumnus, now at Yale). Together they discussed/demonstrated their research into the blurring line between digital art and technology. One project, ongoing at UC Berkeley, involved robotic conversational agents to facilitate interaction by a remote individual with others in a building. These devices, called PRoPs (Personal Roving Presence), can move about, point, and rotate a camera in mimicry of giving another focus. (http://prop.org/) During the panel presentations, Mark Pauline logged into SRL's Web-controlled robot air cannon, which fired can-size pellets at ceramic objects. Later in the conference, SRL had participants direct the flaming exhaust of a jet engine at an approaching robot, reducing it to scrap metal. SRL is dedicated to exploring the interface of technology, art, ritual, and "...themes of socio-political satire." (Definitely at the edge--these folks are shaman/programmers/performance-artists and maybe mad scientists. Visit http://www.srl.org before someone shuts them down!) New Browsers, New Themes Both Netscape and Microsoft held sessions to show early release versions of their under development browsers. This was a lot of alpha code and not all features worked. Netscape 4.5, now available online for developers, will include crypto, DHTML and XML extensions. A Flash plug-in will also be included. Internet Explorer 5.0 will included some menu changes and an extensible DHTML object model. However, during the Netscape presentation, there was discussion of future customizable links between Netscape's new NetCenter Internet portal site, the Netscape browser, and the user's desktop (all based on user preference and site content) -- creating dynamic, user-aware sites. Could Netscape be planning an end run around Win98 with its integrated Internet Explorer browser? Asked another way, could a large enough percentage of Win 95 users resist the upgrade to Win 98 and be satisfied with (free) desktop integration and customization offered by Netscape? Two themes emerged at Web 98: XML has arrived and some cutting-edge products are using it make more automated and data-centric sites; and freeware/shareware tools are getting much more respect. Several sessions focused on what XML was and how it could be used to enhance both content and interactivity, treating Web sites and pages as collections of objects that were independent of content. At one session, PC World's online site was described and how XML allows its material to be easily reorganized and repurposed for content consumers (like AOL). Along with the new approach to Open Software, IBM announced that it has joined the Apache Group and will support the Apache Server with several of its E-commerce products. IBM will also work with the Appache Group to help port the Apache Web server to its AS-400 and System 370/390 mainframe platforms. Further support was shown in the 1998 WebTechniques magazine award for Database products, which went to two free software tools that work together: PHP3 and MySQL. Conference sessions on programming emphasized both Java and Perl, both of which are freely available on the 'Net. Beyond this, the presentation on the forthcoming Netscape Web browsers emphasized the open development process and how that quickly advances the included technologies (down to 48 hours, in some past cases, like the Australian inclusion of enhanced crypto technology). Linux was also anointed the preferred development platform for X.mozilla code. The message was: some of the best tools are (still) free. About XML Why all the interest in XML? The essential reason is that XML tags data and treats data separately from style and format. XSL, the eXtensible Style Language, XML's cousin, handles formatting with what are universal style sheets. Since both are extensible, an organization or company can create tags that address their content uniquely and can reorganize the presentation without touching the data/content. This is not possible with HTML This is important because it allows for describing the data in your site (which adds in cataloging) and also for public and private groups to easily develop data-interchange methods. This is being done by such disparate efforts as the Open Software Description Format (OSD) to allow vender-neutral distribution and installation, Precision Graphics Markup Language (PGML), and the Information and Content Exchange standard (ICE). Think of hyperlinks on steroids, with the possibility of 'event' information following a user's navigation. The W3C adopted the XML specification five months ago, allowing tools vendors to start adding XML features. Those first products are now in beta or just being released. This should result in better site development and much more precise user interactions. The XML family of markup standards should pick up where HTML 4.0 is now, coexisting peacefully. For more information on XML, try: http://www.sgmlu.com and http://xmlu.com. The best conference perk, arguably, was only available to Java programmers who took Bruce Eckel's Intermediate Java tutorial and stayed through the second day. Before the end of the first day, his assistant handed out copies of Eckel's recent book, Thinking in Java. Then, at a break during the second day, Eckel's popular CD, Hands on Java, based on his five-day intensive trainings, were given to attendees. In effect, tutorial attendees were treated as if they had completed one of these intensives. (Eckel maintains PDF and MS-Word versions of the full book on his Web site, with a separate corrections file. Try the following: http://bruceeckel.com/javabook.html ) (On security topics: The presentations by Lincoln Stein are available from his site: http://stein.cshl.org/~lstein/talks/Web98/. These highlight both common and unusual security issues with both Microsoft NT and Unix platforms for Web servers.) There were lots of freebies, but the most notable was: At the end of Expo party, Microsoft handed out blankets, showing uncharacteristic foresight. San Francisco's typical summer fog had rolled in and many party goers needed such a wrap for warmth. Characteristically, Microsoft's blankets were a little thin. In summary, this was a worthwhile and stimulating conference. A random (and completely unscientific) survey I undertook showed high satisfaction among Web developers and moderate satisfaction among programmer types, partly due to one technical speaker not being able to attend at the last minute, forcing the cancellation of three Java sessions.


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