What do you do in the world of networking/libraries/WWW?
Since October 1995 I've been the Senior Trainer for the Netskills project, based at the University of Newcastle. Over the past 9 months I've been involved in developing our HTML Authoring kit and delivering training courses throughout the UK. I am also responsible for the quality control procedures for the Netskills training materials. In addition I have been keeping abreast with network developments, which has included developing a Web Futures talk, using collaborative features of the Web (as described in my Netskills Corner article in Ariadne edition 2). I was also fortunate enough to attend the recent WWW Conference, held in Paris in May. I enjoyed the conference, especially as I was a member of the Programme Committee and chaired one of the panel sessions on Browsing Aids. I was also asked to be a member of the Conference Awards Committee.
How did you get into this field?
In 1991 I was appointed Information Officer in the Computing Service at Leeds University. During 1992 I began to look into the development of a Campus Wide Information System. Although many universities were running home-grown systems, I felt something better was needed. This was partly due to my enthusiasm during the late 1980s for the Apple Macintosh: I can remember developing simple teaching applications using HyperCard and, at a conference session on national information system, such as NISS, commenting on the text interface, and suggesting that information systems should have a graphical interface. Yes, I was describing the Web, but I though it could be built using HyperCard! This was before I knew a much about the Internet, and the importance of open systems.
What was your reaction to the Web when you encountered it for the first time?
In December 1991 a special interest group on information systems at Leeds University arranged an afternoon's session on various Internet tools, such as Gopher, Archie and the Web. I was familiar with Gopher and Archie, but this was my first experience of the Web. I was hooked! After the presentation myself and my systems colleagues in the Computing Service agreed that the Web was worth investigating, so in January 1993 we installed the server. Shortly afterwards we registered the server at CERN. We found that only about 30 organisations around the world were running a registered server. At that time I was slightly concerned that we may have chosen the networked equivalent of the Betamax video player - technically superior to more widely used alternative (Gopher), but in danger of not gaining sufficient momentum to become widely accepted.
About 6 weeks later, I received an unexpected visitor, who arrived at the Computing Service Help Desk, asking if anyone knew about the Web. He was brought along to my office. I can remember him asking "Have you heard of the World Wide Web?" and me replying "Yes, it's wonderful. Would you like a demonstration?" Imagine my embarrassment when he introduced himself as Robert Cailliau from CERN, and a co-developer of the Web with Tim Berners-Lee! Robert was visiting relatives in Leeds, and took the opportunity to visit the local University to spread the word about the Web. I arranged a meeting with a group of about 10 Web enthusiasts at the University, which gave us an early insight into Web developments. I remember asking Robert how many software developers were involved in the Web project at CERN. Robert's reply was four, but, in response to my comment that that wasn't many, mentioned strategic links between CERN and an organisation in the US called NCSA. Robert hoped that these links would result in sharing the load for software development, and he mentioned a browser which was being developed with the name of Mosaic. None of us at the meeting had any inkling how things would develop in the space of a few years - if only we bought shares in those early days! (Conscious of the need to keep a history of Web developments I have written a description of the history of the Web at Leeds).
What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you while giving presentations/demonstrations?
You should know, John, you were there! At the Netlinks Symposia held at Sheffield University in June I gave a talk called "Oh No, Not More Internet Software". I described the approaches being taken by Netskills to the development of network training materials, when the network infrastructure is changing so rapidly. I also described how adaptable Netskills trainers have to be when delivering training. I mentioned a number of embarrassing incidents, such as the exploding OHP at Manchester University in May, and described how we could even give network demonstrations when the network was not available - at which point I theatrically removed the network cable and continued the networked presentation (unlike members of the Magic Circle, I am allowed to reveal my secrets: the client-side caching capabilities of the browser were being used). Unfortunately five minutes later everything went black. "What's happened?" I asked the audience. "You've stood on the power cable" was the reply. Yes, while walking up and down, I had succeeded in stepping on the power lead and pulling the socket from the wall. Not even my magic skills could help me! I did suggest to the audience that as the Symposia was on the theme of Network Learner Support, and all my slides were available on the Web, that I should leave them to read the slides in their own time, leaving me to return to Newcastle (this was on the day of the England - Holland Euro96 match). Sadly I wasn't brave enough to do this, and continued the presentation after the PC had rebooted.
Do you see Netscape remaining the dominant force in the Web browser field?
During 1994 I gave several WWW presentations around the country and was a regular correspondent on the web-support Mailbase list. I repeatedly said "Mosaic is not the only browser available. Don't rely on today's favourite browser". I still express the same sentiment today: it's the information stupid, don't get too hung up on the latest browser technology.
Web pages can be generally created by either (a) using software to convert from some other format e.g. RTF, to HTML (b) using a package such as HoTMetaL to automate/validate the construction or (c) hand, in a text editor and then validated by e.g. the Halsoft validation mechanism (mirrored at HENSA). Which method do you use, and why?
I often use a text editor (MS Windows Notepad), although this article was written using Word For Windows, and converted using Internet Assistant (version 2). Files created manually contain a link to the HTML Validation Service. I use this method because I've three years experience of HTML authoring - it's not a solution for new HTML authors. I suspect I will use the Amaya editor in the near future, as this will provide support for style sheets - which I predict will be an important HTML development by the start of 1997.
Java is now a relatively mature technology, but we don't seem to be overrun with useful applets - why do you think (or do you disagree?) that it hasn't been exploited in many different fields/areas of interest?
Is Java really "relatively mature"? I think many organisations who are considering significant use of Java are still waiting for the standards to mature. Don't forget that the spec for the OBJECT tag (Inserting Multimedia Objects into HTML) is still a working draft, dated April 1996. I also think that organisations are waiting to see how the competition shapes out - in particular Microsoft and their ActiveX technology.
One of the most frequent complaints from UK Web users is the slow speed of accessing some Web sites, especially those held in the US during times of high network traffic. What, if anything, should be done (and by whom) to alleviate this problem? Are caching and mirroring the answer (and if so, how should these approaches best be deployed, locally, nationally and/or internationally)?
Caching (cacheing?) is very important - two sessions were dedicated to this theme at the WWW 5 WWW conference. We are fortunate in the UK HE community of having a long tradition (in Web timescales) of caching. Neil Smith, the administrator of the HENSA national cache, based at the University of Kent at Canterbury, gave a paper on What can Archives offer the World Wide Web? at the first WWW Conference at CERN in May 1994, in which he described the introduction of the UK national caching service. At the recent WWW Conference Neil presented an update of the UK national Web cache. The national cache is now distributed between HENSA and Leeds University, and the possibilities of cooperative caches (using technologies such as Harvest) are being investigated.
There are many other developments which aim to address these issues (such as document pre-fetching and improvements in compression algorithms and underlying protocols). Many companies have invested vast amounts of money in the Internet. They will see a return in their investment only if the Internet scales to greater numbers of users and amount of network traffic. These companies are confident. I think we should be as well.
What would you like to see happen in the field of the World Wide Web in 1996/97?
VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language) will be important in 1997. Recently the VRML 2 standard has been agreed. The standardisation process for VRML 2 was interesting. A number of alternative proposals were made including Active VRML (Microsoft), Dynamic Worlds (GMD and others), HoloWeb (Sun), Moving Worlds (SGI, Sony and others), Out of this World (Apple) and Reactive Virtual Environment (IBM Japan). Fortunately a standards war did not happen. Instead there followed a intensive discussion period, followed by a vote, which resulted in conclusive victory for Moving Worlds. I hope that we will see the end of standards wars in other areas (especially HTML). The Internet is far too important for decisions with far-reaching implications to be taken to maximise short-term profits.