Net connections can be tortoises--or hares

Sometimes it is difficult to talk with others about their experiences surfing the
Internet. It is as if we are discussing entirely different beasts.


The old story about the blind men describing an elephant comes to mind. The Net is so
huge that two people can spend months and never happen upon the same World Wide Web pages.


There is another significant factor. The speed of your modem makes a tremendous
difference to the nature and quality of your life on the Net.


My friend Dave uses the Internet even though he still has a 2400-bit/sec modem . At
that speed, everything takes a day and a half to appear on his screen. Naturally, he
doesn't understand what the big deal is about the Net. Downloading a file is an event that
must be scheduled for a weekend.


Another colleague has a T-1 line serving his office. Graphics mean nothing to him, they
appear in a snap. Yet with a 28.8-kilobit/sec modem at home, he is a mere mortal, faced
with the practical constraints and delays that many of us confront.


I have a 28.8 modem. This is either fast or slow, depending on what you are used to.
There are still plenty of 14.4-kilobit/sec modems in use. My first modem in the 1980s ran
at 300 bits/sec, and you could fall asleep while a page of text appeared letter by letter
on your screen. Of course, at that time, it was all so exciting that sleep was not an
issue. Each jump in modem speed was breathtaking, until you got used to it and began to
crave more speed.


Those who design Web pages need to keep modem speeds in mind. It will be years before
everyone has superfast access. Many Web sites with densely graphical pages seem to be
built on the assumption that everyone has a T-1 line. Image after image appears, with some
pages taking a minute, two minutes, or longer to appear. Click on the next link and wait
another eternity for a new page.


This is debilitating and frustrating. Most images are insubstantial puffery. Ten
seconds of waiting at a computer screen is a long time. Two minutes is a lifetime. This
stuff looks great when you show a demo to your boss, but real life on the Net is a
different story for many users.


I finally got smart and stopped loading images. It is easy to do with Netscape
Navigator. Just click on Options and turn off the Auto Load Image button. Don't forget to
choose Save Options before you exit. Then each image will appear as a small, standard box.
Pages that used to take minutes to load now come up in a few seconds. If you want the
images from the current screen page, just click the Images box on the tool bar and they
will be loaded.


This simple option helps a lot. Everything is faster, and surfing is less frustrating.
There is no need to look on the Web page for a "text-only" box to speed things
up.


Free advice for Web page designers: Re-examine the cute but useless graphics. They may
be a deterrent to casual visitors. At a minimum, put a text-only switch at the top of a
page, not at the bottom.


The only problem is that sometimes a screen menu is a graphic image with no text
equivalent. To use the menu, just load the image for that page. Sometimes, however, there
is no text indication that there is a menu at all. More free advice for Web page
designers: Review your pages in text-only mode.


To expand on an old thought: You can never be too rich, too thin or have too fast an
Internet connection. Until we all have the ability to download the entire U.S. Code
instantly, I have a modest proposal. When people meet to discuss the Net, their name
badges should indicate the speed of their connections, so they can better understand
everyone else's perspectives about the Net. A badge would read "Bob 28.8" or
"Chuck T-1." It would also remind page designers that people will be using slow
modems for the foreseeable future.


And we could all stand around and snicker about poor "Dave 2400."


Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations
Subcommittee on Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington
privacy and information policy consultant. His e-mail address is rgellman@cais.com.
 


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