Petreley's column: How long until Zippy the Paper Clip rules the Web?

I've said it before. Network computing is steadily working its way into our lives, spreading through osmosis. But I didn't realise how quickly it was happening until I sat through a demonstration of Oracle's WebDB.

What struck me as I watched the Oracle people move through the interface of a WebDB-generated application was how much things have changed and how we're reacting to those changes.

When database application vendors demonstrated their products 10 years ago, they would invariably show off all the newest, fanciest user interface enhancements. The screens were filled with tightly packed, beautifully arranged fields.

The vendors would boast about their autovalidating data fields that correctly reformatted your data as you typed it. If you were entering a monetary value, the program would add a dollar sign and the proper number of decimal places. Or parentheses would magically appear if you were entering a long-distance telephone number. You get the idea.

And don't let me forget speed. I'm not talking about the speed of a query or of a transaction, although those were important. Vendors also liked to show off how quickly you could move from one record to the next. Hit the page-down key, and bingo. The screen would instantly display the contents of the next record.

I reminisced about these things last week as I watched a demonstration of a Web application built with WebDB. WebDB is a set of tools for building and managing Web-based database programs and tracking their use. WebDB itself is a browser-based application, so you can design, modify, or administer your Web applications from any client that supports a decent browser.

The WebDB development approach lends itself to the Web model because it is simply a series of wizards. Using a wizard is almost identical to browsing. You click on a few choices and then hit the Next button, continuing until the wizard has taken you through the whole process.

But when you run a WebDB-generated application, the data screens tend to have a lot of wasted space. If it is possible to use WebDB to get the fields to self-validate or autoformat, I saw no evidence of it. And when you click to the next data record, it refreshes the whole browser display, unlike a traditional database application. Furthermore, because you're on the Web, it can take a while before the data appears.

You've probably guessed where I'm heading. Web applications tend to be slower, and their user interfaces more primitive, than even the DOS-based applications of the past. But the most interesting thing is that I rarely hear anyone complaining.

Quite the contrary. I often hear praise for interface design that would have been laughable just a few years ago. What I usually hear people complain about is applications that try to be too darned smart for their own good.

That surprised me at first. But soon I realised that this is simply one of many indications of a positive trend toward network-centric computing. And I, for one, am glad vendors are spending less time and energy on frivolous user interface gadgets and more time on enabling customers to share information without locking them into a particular platform.

I don't know about you, but I've had it with intrusive user interface enhancements. The first thing I do when I install a word processor these days is to disable all of the auto-everything features. I don't want my word processor to change letters to lowercase when I enter a word in all caps. I don't want it replacing my quotes with smart quotes. I don't want it to turn everything that looks like a URL into a hyperlink. And I definitely don't want advice from a talking paper clip.

What I'm wondering is, how long is this recent reprieve from useless frills going to last? After all, it isn't impossible to do interface tricks over the Web. But Web bandwidth is still limited, so for the time being it is more important to serve up a thin Web page than to create a dazzling interface. This, however, is almost certain to change.

So how long do you think we have to enjoy this brief flirtation with sanity? How long before we browse to an electronic-commerce site only to have Zippy the Paper Clip jump out and tell us what to do?

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