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The Interactive Industry

by Glen Emerson Morris
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Given the number of low orbit Internet service satellites due to be in operation within five years, it's certain that the Internet will support tens of millions of simultaneous interactive business to consumer connections soon, and on a global scale. What's far less certain is where all the software is going to come from to produce all the interactive Websites being planned for this brave, new world communications network.

This question doesn't seem to bother the countless agencies and clients already planning interactive Websites, and beginning to ramp up to produce them. However, the question is bothering Adobe, whose layoffs in 1998 were a direct result of the trend towards Web production and away from print. Adobe's catalog was sorely lacking in Web development tools just as production companies chose to buy new Internet development software over updating their copies of Photoshop, Illustrator, and PageMaker (or QuarkXPress.) With Adobe software costing $200 per title to upgrade, and a top end Web development program like GoLive CyberStudio only costing $300 or less (at the current special sale price,) skipping a couple of Adobe upgrades could pay for a complete Web tools set. Unfortunately for Adobe, most production companies considered it a no-brainer decision. The choice just reflected economic reality.

Once a Website was just expected to be an online version of a static print publication, and if you had the tools to do print production (like Photoshop and Illustrator,) you were set. Soon, you're going to need half the software in MIT's Media Lab, and then some, just to produce a mediocre interactive Website. Just consider how broad the term "interactive" is An interactive Website can include all the properties of print, audio, video, searchable databases, customer profiling, artificial intelligence, and the even more worrisome "et cetera." These elements all require highly specialized tools to produce them, and no company produces all types. Actually, the problem is even worse. Few companies make more than one type of production tool, so a complete set of tools will wind up coming from a variety of companies. This is a serious change from how things have been for some time.

For a over a decade, the advertising and media industries could get nearly all of the production tools they needed from just Adobe and Apple, with Radius and Quark providing a few missing top end tools. These companies provided an integrated solution to the professional desktop publishing market that will be badly missed in a world where key products come from dozens of suppliers. The compatibility issues are going to be a nightmare. Even now, Web developers have to base designs on how a Web page will appear through at least four different configurations (Mac and Windows systems running either Netscape or Explorer.) Add issues like a database, audio, and video streaming, and complexity goes through the roof.

It's going to be difficult enough to integrate these vastly different elements into a single production even if all the software used works together, seamlessly, but it's not likely to go that smoothly. The greater the number of different software programs used together, the greater the probability of compatibility problems, and if the tools needed to create interactive Websites don't interact well themselves, the final product is likely to be less than ideally interactive.

When most of the different software needed for media production came from the same company, namely Adobe, compatibility issues were relatively easy to solve. Now that development is spread over dozens of companies, it's becoming difficult just to identify what software is really causing the problem. Problems are becoming more difficult to fix too, since competing companies are less likely to work together effectively than departments within the same company.

Even more problematic is the process of actually delivering interactive advertising to customers, since this distribution phase requires that an even more disparate set of hardware and software work together properly, which is not always the case.

For instance, an Internet service provider in the San Francisco Bay area noticed that 20 per cent of their customers couldn't log on to the company's Website. This applied to a random, but consistent, set of customers whether they were using Netscape of Explorer, or on a Mac or Windows system. In addition, some customers couldn't see text on the logon screen that other customers could. (Some people saw one button which was supposed to read "Click here to enter," as "lick here to enter.") When the ISP complained about this to the different companies that made their Web server software, each company blamed it on someone else. This kind of case is becoming common now, and likely to get worse.

The development of interactive advertising will be as revolutionary as the development of desktop publishing, and not just in terms of it's effect on sales. It will have a profound effect on the industry, or industries, that produce the tools that make it possible, and even on the tools themselves. We're already seeing the beginning this trend, and it can be counted on to redefine the phrase "bleeding edge," before it's over. We can only hope that the tools we need, and the industries that develop them, will become as interactive as the advertising we're trying to create, and soon.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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