BOSTON–Sitting in a conference session at the winter 2000 Seybold Seminars trade show, I’m struck by just how old the Web is, and how far it has come. The days of simple Web sites created by a small group of people are drawing to a close; mention 1998 and you’ll think you were talking about a time when dinosaurs walked the earth.
If the beauty of the Web is that anyone can be a Web publisher, then the Web is getting uglier all the time, and pretty soon no amount of face-lifting will be able to change that fact. Hottest among this year’s technical topics at Seybold’s web publishing conference is database-driven, dynamic Web site publishing — preferably with XML (the Extensible Mark-up Language). Second on the list is probably managing large Web staffs and integrating people working on design, engineering, and information architecture.
If those topics sounds imposing – well, they are. They’re downright ugly.Too Much Information
The biggest problem with the Web these days is that it’s gotten so big. As anyone who’s set up a few personal Web pages can attest, it’s pretty simple to set up a basic site. The problem is that not only are there more Web pages being generated than ever before, but in most cases the old Web pages aren’t going away. Macworld’s Web site alone contains nearly 6000 Web pages.
Can you imagine organizing such a site? Or redesigning it (and having to redesign all 6000 pages)? Or finding a way to put the day’s top news headlines on every one of them, every single day? It gets complicated quickly. And that’s one of the reasons everyone’s talking about databases and XML.
XML sounds scary. Stuff that begins with the letter X usually does — there’s a reason they didn’t call it “The C Files.” But basically, XML is a language that lets you categorize Web content — just about any kind of Web content — in a way that anyone can understand. Rather than using HTML tags, which declare that “this word is in italics,” or “this sentence is in Helvetica, and it’s bold,” XML tags let you say, “here’s a summary of what’s in this document,” “here’s the body of the document itself,” and even “here are some categories this document fits in.”
There are two big reasons why XML is so important that even marketing-conscious bigwigs like the duly-designated representatives of Macromedia, Quark, and Adobe who appeared at Seybold’s keynote address spent time pumping it: it makes it easy to publish lots of pages quickly, and it makes it easy to transfer your information to other folks who wants to use it on their sites.
The ascendence of XML is cool, but it does point out just how much the Web has changed. XML is, for better or worse, a container. It’s not a Web page — it’s a piece of tupperware inside which is some stuff that’s meant for the Web. To get it to the Web, you’ve got to process that XML — and that means a complicated system of pushing XML data through template files and eventually generating HTML files.
Once you’ve got lots of files in a database-driven publishing system, you can do things like set up your site’s home page to automatically display the five most-recent stories in the top-left corner (including a headline and a brief blurb about the story), plus top stories in a particular category in the top-right corner. You can automatically generate a list of stories that are related to the current story that’s being viewed. You can, depending on your time and resources, do all this and much more.
If you’re someone who just got used to the idea of making Web pages, saving them to your hard drive, and then uploading them to a Web server, I have begun to sound like I’m from Mars. But that’s the whole point — the whole process of creating Web sites is evolving into something really big. Been planning on mourning the day when the Web transforms from being a medium where regular joes can get their message out to the world to a medium totally dominated by big media companies with lots of expensive staff and technical experts? Break out the black frock, because the time is now.A Different World
Okay, I’m exaggerating a little. The Web is a much more egalitarian world than print publishing or broadcasting, and probably always will be. That’s because you can make a Web site with some spit and bailing wire, and it’ll still be viewable by people in Brazil or Burundi or Birmingham. But as the Web has grown and aged, people’s expectations have risen. And to make a Web site that will fulfill the needs of picky, Web-savvy people — there are more and more of those each day — you’ll need a whole lot more than a Web server stuffed full of HTML pages.
Like I said, things are getting complicated. A single person with a text editor and a dream can still make a Web site, but can that person make a cool, cutting-edge Web site that will draw a lot of attention from a lot of people for a long time? The odds aren’t good.
This doesn’t mean you can’t help in building the Web. It doesn’t mean you can’t start up a killer Web site with you and a half-dozen friends. But it does mean that you can’t really do it alone, no more than you could set up your own TV station all by yourself. If Seybold Boston 2000 has made anything crystal clear to me, it’s that in large part, the Web has moved beyond the do-it-yourselfer.
Tomorrow: The Web’s most important job
Macworld.com editor JASON SNELL ( email@example.com ) has published on the Internet for nine years and covered Web publishing since 1995.