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Developing Web Developers

By Jack Powers

Published: January 15, 1996 | Revised: February 10, 2002

Sometimes things can be too cheap. On the World Wide Web, any maniac with a Macintosh and a modem can become a web developer. Commercial home page sub-letting starts at less than $100 per month, and Internet Service Providers often throw in a free home page with every subscription. Even America On-Line gives every user 120 megabytes of web space as part of its $10.00 monthly charge.

One reason the Web has grown so fast is that publishing there costs so little. At the Google search engine's last count, there were more than 2 billion HTML pages on-line around the world. But as every surfer knows, most of the sites are mostly junk.

I don't know which pages are worse, the college sophomore's self-indulgent kaka or the corporate shovelware served up by MIS directors and PR flacks-- "Click here to see a picture of my cat" or "Click here to see a message from our chairman." We've always had low-class print and a vanity press, but in cyberspace these excretions are browsed side-by-side with some very smart and very compelling interactive publications.

The Internet is the world. There is as much venality and small-mindedness on the net as there is in the real world, and there are as few moments of wit and grace as there are in the real world. Unfortunately, access is as cheap for the venal and small-minded as it is for the witty and graceful. For print publishers making the move on-line, the challenge is to pick a web developer with a good media perspective, one who knows the technical stuff inside out but who also understands the way readers read and publishers publish.

There are three phases to building a web site or any interactive publication: design, programming and production. Design includes the editorial work, art direction, illustration and hyperlinking. Programming includes the image mapping, database development, forms and transaction applications, security and usage analysis. Production is the actual keyboarding, scanning, coding and converting needed to build the site and keep it current.


Design has several components, the easiest of which is the graphics part: every designer knows how to make a GIF image in PhotoShop and every art school graduate is learning HTML. But pages written for print can't just be converted onto a screen. The copy has to be edited for interactivity, hyperlinks added, and new interactive editorial features like searchability and participation created. Otherwise all you get is a more expensive, lower resolution version of your printed page that doesn't take advantage of the interactive medium and that's probably not as good looking as the original paper product. (That's why Adobe Acrobat pages will never be an important part of the web.) Many new illustration formats are coming to the web: downloadable and real-time audio, on-demand video, integrated animation and 3D virtual reality worlds offer some eye-popping design opportunities.

But giving an on-line publication a strong editorial voice is a lot more important than tarting it up with huge graphics or modem-hostile multimedia. (Most readers don't have the computing horsepower to view the new formats, anyway.) It's hard to do a good editorial job, though, and many web developers try to cover up the insufficiency of their editorial vision by escaping into the future: "I know it stinks now, but wait until (everyone has ISDN) (cable modems deliver 10Mbps) (everybody has a 150Mhz Pentium) and it'll be great!" Ultimately it's the steak that counts, though, not the sizzle.


The key to building a compelling website is participation. With interactive media, the reader should not be the passive receiver of some pre- packaged pages, but an active participant in the medium. The smartest web sites offer different approaches to their content, give the reader powerful search options, customize the experience to his interests and provide two-way communications and transaction links--thing you can't do in print, things that make web publications better than paper publications. From a technical perspective, this means that the web developer must have good server-side programming skills. On the web, reader input is taken through HTML forms and processed through CGI routines, Perl scripts and C programs. Designing that software and coding those programs separates the moonlighting HTML freelancers from the serious web devel opers.

Converting and serving up a client's database takes similar systems analysis skills as well as knowledge of different applications and operating environments. Working with the much-hyped Java applications generator and hacking new server- side tricks like customizing HTML pages on the fly, building off-web links to computers, fax machines and beepers, and handling algorithmic advertising placements all need a programmer's perspective, not an art director's eye.


After all the creativity in design and in programming, the more mundane tasks of getting the text keyboarded, the images scanned and the multimedia mounted require a different set of skills. Tight production management will keep a job on schedule and control quality, keeping typos, busted links and obese graphics to a minimum. Server maintenance, security controls and web usage tracking are also important production functions.


The skills of design, programming and production are so different that it's rare to find a web developer who's great at all three. Budding web page art directors are a dime a dozen, but interactive authors and editors are harder to find. Since most servers are Unix-based, there's a big pool of C- and Perl-capable programmers who are learning ab out publishing, and new servers based on Macs and PCs will expand the options.

New media production, I've always felt, should be handled by the same people who got the old media work out, the prep shops, service bureaus and printers who know how to handle complex computer- based text and images, but most graphic arts firms don't seem to understand new media. A publisher picking a web developer must match the kind of site he wants with the strengths the developers have. A magazine that needs great design would pick a different web shop than a catalog house that needs excellent database and transaction work. A news-heavy site that's updated every day will need strong production skills, and an ad-supported site will need good statistics and placement programming.

As the web business develops and as skills become more specialized, we'll probably see collaborations between different web shops on the same site: strong designers handling the content, strong programmers building the transactions, and strong production houses doing the work. At the high end, big developers will handle the whole job from soup to nuts, while at the low end, there will probably always be an army of freelancers who'll do the work for next to nothing.\\


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