As you scanned the cover of Community, you noticed that this is not a traditional book. There is no paper. No binding. This is an electronic book. To target the breadth of audience that we hope will read this -- professors, students, non-academics, international folks -- we could not afford to print enough copies. Electronic publishing also allows us to economically create a book with unlimited page length. Unlimited use of color. Unlimited world-wide exposure.
When I was first asked to design Community as an electronic book, I was excited by these limitless possibilities. It sounded like an incredible idea. A biography full of pictures, memories, poetry, technical works, essays. An experiment in publication. I surfed the net in search of something similar, but I found nothing. Without a model to guide us, we (the editors) set out to create a publication without boundaries.
Or so we thought.
The electronic publishing world is slowly being discovered. Who knows what lies at the end of its horizon. Will we fall off the flat edges of our world, or continue around to find new continents? As we began our search for a publication with no boundaries, it became obvious that the perfect sun setting over the horizon would not be easy to reach. Between us and that horizon are countless high mountain passes, treacherous stream crossings and a dangerous mother nature. The dangers of exploring the "world" of internet publishing parallel the dangers encountered by the explorers of our earth. Who knows what lies just over the next ridge?
INTERNET HISTORY -- THE FORMATION OF OUR ELECTRONIC WORLD
So why is the electronic publishing world so hostile? To understand some of its pitfalls, we must know a little about Internet history. Basically, the Internet was not constructed with publication or the designer in mind.
Internet-- the electronic information infrastructure. It is composed of nodes (computers) that are all equally capable of sending and receiving information. ***** World Wide Web (WWW, The Web)-- a method for posting and viewing documents by using HTML code (HyperText Markup Language) to format information and a graphical interface called a browser to view information.
Our Internet planet (NOT the World Wide Web -- see sidebar) actually began to cool and solidify back in the 1960s. It was formed with mountains of data and streams of numbers. It was catalyzed by a desire to access information; it is rapidly evolving into much more than that.
Our story begins with the Cold War. Though the idea for an "Internet" had been documented for a couple of years, the Rand Corporation solved the computer networking problem. The requirements? First, the need for communication after a nuclear attack. Second, no central authority that would be a prime target for a nuclear bombing. In 1964, Paul Baran wrote a proposal for just such a computer network. Every computer (node) of the network could equally send or receive information. Most importantly, if one node was "down," the rest of the nodes could still communicate. Though not the most efficient way to transmit information, the network would be reliable and not dependent on any particular machine. After some test networks, the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) used these principles and installed the first such network in the United States. In 1969, UCLA became the location of the first computer node for ARPANET.
From an initial four nodes, ARPANET began to spread -- even internationally by 1973. Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), however, made it easier for anyone to hook into what we now call the Internet.
TCP -- Transmission Control Protocol: the method by which the host node divides information into packets and the receiving node converts these packets. ***** IP-- Internet Protocol: handles the addressing of packets and nodes. ***** DNS -- Domain Name System: easier way to address servers. Server types include .com (commercial), .net (gateways between networks), .gov (government), .mil (military), .edu (educational), and .org (non-profit organizations)
TCP/IP allowed any operating platform (i.e. Macintosh, Windows, UNIX) to link to the Internet and convert/view or address/send information. Internet growth also led to the Domain Name System (DNS), an easier method for addressing the nodes or servers which were previously long strings of numbers. These standards or protocols were in place long before the World Wide Web (WWW) was formed, though most of us have only known the Internet through a Web browser and these protocols.
The growth of ARPANET led to a need for its members to coordinate projects more easily -- electronically of course. Just three years into the project, Ray Tomlinson wrote the original e-mail program. E-mail began what has continued as a re-definition of the Internet. Long before the WWW, people began to use the Internet less for data transfer and computing, and more for personal communication. This re-definition has continued with the World Wide Web. The Web began in 1990, when Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau wrote a proposal for using a simple interface and "HyperText" to access and "browse" data and information. Created for CERN (The European Institute for Particle Physics), the original "Web" was meant to be only for the Physics community. Its grown a little larger than that. In 1991, Berners-Lee and Cailliau put their "Web" software on the Internet for free. Soon afterward, Marc Andreessen incorporated graphical capabilities into a new browser, and "Mosaic" was released from The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) to the public in January 1993.
WEB PUBLISHING -- NEVER-ENDING CONCERNS
So -- in this world created from cold war paranoia, high energy physics, data mountains and number streams, where do publications fit in? Well, web-page designers from professional to amateur are trying to force the Web to be more publisher friendly. What they face are never-ending concerns. How large can our graphics be? How will my pages look on a different platform or browser? Will my page be convenient for printing on paper? How should we organize our site?
What the problems boil down to are inclusion, structure, and presentation.
One of the main problems faced by web designers is inclusion. This is one of the essential visions of the Web. Allowing all people to express themselves and access all information. . . that is how the perfect Web world would function. That is not reality. Though the Internet was designed for it, the Web is not "equal access." What we face are people working on different computer platforms, with different web browsers, accessing the web with connections of all kinds of speeds. Many people don't have access to a computer, or don't have the knowledge to fire up a web browser. Sure everyone that has internet access can receive the same files, but the displayed information on a web browser may be different. For the designer, this presents many difficulties. First of all, different platforms display fonts at slightly different sizes.
To ensure that each browser will see each of your pages similarly can be quite tricky. For example, a layout that looks perfect on a Macintosh may backfire when it is displayed on a Windows machine. Many people (myself included until recently) are not even aware of this problem. Second, with the onset of new web browsers that each incorporate new functions, you can never be sure if your audience will be able to see a particular function or not. An example is shown with the three images to the left. The first two images should be a black rectangle with a blue 'About' and a black rectangle with a white 'About.' An older browser that does not support the options of java script (a programming language) and changing table cell color will see the third image just as the first one. A newer browser will see the first image surrounded by a red table cell background color. Passing the cursor over the rectangle will also enable the java script program and the image will change to the white 'About' rectangle. Up to a year ago, many browsers were not even capable of handling tables -- now an indispensable design feature for creating columns. Connection speed also plays an important role in inclusion. Do you sacrifice the graphical appeal of your pages, or do you use smaller graphics and worry more about content. For this publication, we are attempting to land somewhere in the middle. To follow one of Ken Wilkinson's tenets of "inclusion," we have targeted the middle ground. Some pages use large graphics files to visually display poetry, but if they take too long to load, there is also a text only option to access the essential information.
The structure of a web-site can instantly turn off a viewer. Too many links (or choices) on the first page, and you are overwhelmed. Too few links, and you may have little idea of what each area of the publication contains. Easy navigation is the key. This page begins with six categories. Enough to (hopefully) guide viewers to sections of interest, but not too many to bewilder them. Identifying where you are in the site structure is also important. We need visual cues to help us locate our position in the "document." We also need ways to quickly relocate ourselves. In this publication, a number of design features have been incorporated. A header at the top of every page provides links both to the front page and to the section that the browser is currently in.
Additionally, a footer emblem at the bottom of each page provides a link to the main page in that particular section (highlighted in blue) and every other main section of the publication.
Presentation is one of the most attractive and most problematic parts about Web design. Unlimited color and graphics are hampered by the need to be careful about file sizes and also by layout difficulties. The sophistication of the layout is not as great as page layout software. Design also is difficult because you are never sure what size monitor and resolution your reader will have. To get nice and (hopefully) predictable layouts, I used tables. Meant for arranging data, tables are a slightly archaic way to arrange a page into columns. Tables force the text to be a certain width, even if the browser is stretched to fill the screen. The first table example to the left shows what a three column layout with a header area looks like with the table borders on. The second example shows how a single cell table can be used to make an area for a graphic with a caption -- just like the area that the examples are in! An additional benefit of forcing the text to fit within a table is that our tables will fill the width of a printer page. This way, we can predict approximately how a page will appear upon printing. A final note on column width. One major dilemma was deciding on how wide to make the columns. Most people have a hard time reading columns that are as wide as the monitor. We also didn't want the documents to require excessive down scrolling or too many pages. What we settled on is hopefully not too wide. We have tried to design "Community" to accommodate most browsers. Plug-ins, which are often used for video or sound, are not necessary to view this site. This eliminates the need to leave this page and download a plug-in before viewing any of the pages. Any browser that recognizes tables should display the pages and .gif movies similarly to any other.
NEW HORIZONS FOR UNDERSTANDING PEOPLE
Although the list of problems and gripes is endless, each generation of browsers pushes the Web to new horizons. For every new version of Netscape Navigator on the market comes a new Microsoft Explorer . . . the competition to win the browser "war" is intense.
The problem is that a world where every node is supposed to be equal does not exist. Different machines and platforms operating at different bandwidths (mocem speed essentially) with different browsers means that there is a growing gap between the technology haves and the have nots. Luckily, someone is looking out for the designer and user. The World Wide Web Consortium, W3C, was founded in 1994. Led by Tim Berners-Lee and Jean-Francois Abramatic, the Consortium is developing common protocols for the evolution of the World Wide Web. The W3C is vendor neutral and is attempting to set standards for the global community. Only time will tell if the W3C can keep the Web interconnected in the face of commercial development.
For a communication form that is really only four years old, the World Wide Web should be expected to have some difficulties. We are just realizing what this world can become. We also realize that it currently has a number of limitations. Many of those limitations may ALWAYS be a part of the Web. As for the hostile world of Internet publishing? Every year the publisher and designer have more and more tools to use. As we continue to explore the Internet publishing world with more advanced software and browser utilities, we will eventually see more applications of the Internet. I hope to see more publications like this one appearing on the Web. I also hope that books, magazines, and newspapers are never replaced by the Web. Sure you could take your laptop with you to read electronic publications, but clicking the mouse will never be quite the same as flipping pages.
Tim Berners-Lee, in an interview with Scientific American said, "The Web can help people to understand the way that others live and love and are human, to understand the humanity of people." We hope that this publication helps people to do just that.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND MORE INFORMATION
Gromov, Gregory R., 1996, The Roads and Crossroads of Internet's History , http://www.internetvalley.com/intvalweb.html.
Holloway, Marguerite, 1997, "Molding the Web." Scientific American, December 1997, pp. 34-36.
Leiner, Barry M. et al., 1997, A Brief History of the Internet, http://www.isoc.org/internet/history/brief.shtml
Mayr, David, History of the Internet and the WWW, http://turducken.dreamingheart.net/internet.html.
The World Wide Web Consortium, 1995, A Little History of the World Wide Web, http://www.w3.org/History.html.