Tool Time

SAN FRANCISCO (01/04/2000) - Vignette officials claim they're all about "e-relationships," whatever those are. But the company's real business is developing, selling and supporting StoryServer, a leading high-end production system for building and maintaining Web sites. Wall Street is sold on the company, which recently announced a stock split after a tenfold rise from its IPO price.

As is the case with other companies that sell products or services geared to people with rarefied technical skills, however, you have to wonder just how familiar the Vignette-touting Wall Street analysts are with the company's StoryServer system. Of the 12 analysts cited on Vignette's analyst contact page, exactly none works for a company that appears to use StoryServer on its public Web site. Do these analysts know what the introduction of an automated production system does to a company? Do they know the effect these systems can have on an entire department's productivity? As one of the first people outside Vignette or CNET to use the nascent StoryServer in a production environment (one of my clients made my project the guinea pig), I learned the many strengths and weaknesses of the system. Some people love it. Others don't. One staffer who recently left my client described his new position in a farewell e-mail: "The best thing is: No more StoryServer!"

I'm not picking on StoryServer here. Anyone working in Web site production can tell you any number of horror stories regarding every off-the-shelf and homegrown production process. It's the Web's version of the sausage factory. If you don't have to - trust me - you don't want to see how sites are made.

Down in the Web-building factories you'll find a profound disconnect between the valuations of automated site-building companies and the value of their tools. Consider the way that most current word processors are trying to do everything except come up with an easy way to write. My current favorite useless Microsoft Word feature is AutoSummarize, which aims to assist people too clueless to know what the document they're writing is about.

Many site-building programs make the same mistake, easing the addition of all sorts of faux-interactive bells and whistles, but ignoring the fact that what site builders really need are robust, specific tools that make storytelling on a screen simpler and more exciting for both the builder and the consumer.

Interactive tools are lagging because the current models are based on different media. Shockwave applications tend to be stripped-down versions of Director animations that don't travel well in less-than-broadband environments; desktop Web-construction systems like NetObjects Fusion and Macromedia Dreamweaver treat Web site construction as a different kind of traditional desktop publishing - with all their efforts dedicated to precise object placement and seemingly zero attention devoted to building a site that will flourish in the hypertext-rich, two-way environment of the Web. The products are improving (thanks in large part to some welcome third-party add-ons that should be integrated into the main products), but you're more likely to get a site with Web-safe colors using the modules in these programs than a site that feels like it's anything more than a brochure.

The Web has begun its inexorable move from something viewed primarily on computers to something that's interacted with on an infinite number of devices.

The Palm VII and various cellular phones will shortly have plenty of company.

The lack of good tools will become more painful, both to site builders who want tools that free them and to customers who want to do more on the Web than just click, click, click. The short-term, shortsighted solution that many companies adopt is simply to reformat their Web sites so they don't look like garbage on a Palm or cell phone.

As for useful, entertaining, surprising Web services built specifically for these devices that are anything more than stripped-down PC applications - we're still waiting. The development of a great new-media authoring tool could build an industry as overwhelming what VisiCalc built a generation ago. Imagine the market cap of a site-building company with tools that analysts actually use.

Jimmy Guterman is president of the Vineyard Group, an editorial consultancy in Massachusetts.

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