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Milling Around the Internet

After every Macworld Expo, we attempt to pull the overriding theme out of the hype and chaos of the show. At the last Macworld Expo in San Francisco, it seemed as though every company had an Internet product, or they had at least managed to put the word "Internet" into their products’ names. At last week’s show, a vast number of companies exhibited Internet-related products, and this time they were related to the Internet by more than just name. However, many of these companies lack a strong conception of their products, what problems they solve, and for whom these products solve problems.

I don’t want to name names, because this epidemic of confusion about the Internet seems to afflict most software companies. Only a few firms, mostly start-ups, have the proper mindset to conceive of an Internet product that solves a real problem in an elegant and realistic manner.

This problem may have a number of causes. Internet technology changes rapidly, presenting a moving target. You must determine what your program will do and get it out fast, either before the problem it solves has disappeared or before someone else beats you to the punch. Also, it’s difficult to create a product that works well for new users and appeals to more experienced veterans. And, of course, it doesn’t take much time for new users to become gurus in their own right.

More seriously, I have the impression that most people developing Internet programs don’t use the Internet much, and as a result, their programs lack strong vision. The most telling symptom of this lack of vision is when companies release so-called public betas to solicit feedback from users. Successful programs start with a strong vision and then react to feedback – consider programs from small developers who don’t need to do massive amounts of usability testing or public betas. A good example might be Anarchie, which Peter Lewis wrote to solve problems he saw with existing tools. Peter didn’t start Anarchie by asking users what they wanted; instead he created the feature set he wanted and refined it over the years based on feedback.

Working primarily from user feedback tends to result in programs with scattered feature sets and fragmented functionality. I’d like to see developers spending more research time online, seeing what issues come up in mailing lists and newsgroups, and learning more about the Internet world before formulating product ideas. That research is necessary for a focused product – otherwise we end up with yet another ill-conceived HTML editor or bookmark manager or Internet floor wax that breaks no new ground and solves no existing problems.

Apple’s emphasis on multimedia on the Internet makes sense from a technological standpoint, but I fear that it falls victim to this lack of a reality check. No one will argue that QuickTime movies aren’t cool, but I’ve seen few Web sites that benefit from their use. Similarly, on my 660AV, the Shockwave plug-in from Macromedia seems to conflict with RAM Doubler, and I need RAM Doubler far more than I need Shockwave (which, as far as I can tell, I don’t need at all). In each case, these companies are attempting to leverage existing technology to solve problems that barely exist. I’d prefer to see them make a difference by solving the real-life problems of regular Internet users.

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