The days of writing your basic Hypertext Markup Language (HTML)-based Web pages in Notepad are numbered. There are a host of new products, such as Macromedia's new Backstage Studio, that are fast approaching full WYSIWYG HTML development. They incorporate drag and drop graphics, on the fly development of tables and forms, access to databases and automatic formatting of output and easy inclusion of multimedia links. Building a flash Web page has never been simpler.
On the other hand, the continued development of Spyglass' Mosaic and the growing profile of Microsoft Explorer and Oracle's Power Browser make standards for Web content, applications, and protocols more problematic. Not all versions of all browsers can read all the fancy new Java scripts and other much-ballyhooed enhancements.
This explosion of standards has already affected the New Zealand market with the inability of the new Companies website (http://www.companies.govt.nz) to be accessed from browsers other than Netscape 2.x. We are also seeing at least one Internet service provider, Internet Company of New Zealand (ICONZ), offering Microsoft Explorer as the standard Web browser for new clients running Windows 95. ICONZ operations manager Lynn Harden notes that "Microsoft is putting significant resource into the Internet and our thinking at the moment is that Microsoft products will continue to dominate the market. We want to make sure our clients are well served."
And if we add the fact that some ISPs, like Voyager, are still distributing Netscape1.x as the browser of choice, we see that developing pages to a common standard is becoming complex indeed.
What's a Webmaster to do?
In the short term, the best bet is to keep your Web page content plain and simple - to the lowest common denominator ... after all, not many Internet users here in New Zealand have sufficient bandwidth and software to take full advantage of some of the more esoteric new application development tools.
In the long term you will have to develop a keen awareness of your target market. I suspect we will see the segmentation of the Internet audience from a monolithic, international "them" to a more specialised set of user types, each with different requirements, different capabilities and different levels of expertise in Internet useage.
For your target market, you will have to know what type of hardware/software configuration they are likely to have. How fast can they download data? Can they access sound, video, frames, Java applets, or even graphics? One possible solution, hinted at by some of the browser developers, is that the information servers will provide preconfigured browsers especially designed to work with a specific Web site with a set suite of online products. This solution would facilitate the two-way interchange of commerce over the Net.
We still have a bit of breathing space before the problem becomes too acute. In fact, vendors might even see the benefit of working together for the greater good of the industry as a whole (dream on!). But in the meantime, start to think seriously about who you are targeting your Internet presence for and make sure that you monitor their Internet habits. It could spell the difference between a viable programme and an expensive fiasco.