Tips on Channel Design: Interview with Marc Palmer of AnyWare Limited

Channel Maker, a channel creation and maintenance tool designed by Marc Palmer, simplifies the task of generating a CDF file to represent site contents for an Active Channel. Chapter 10 of Guide to Creating Web Channels provides a case study based on Marc's experiences launching his channel development tool on the Internet. In this interview, Marc brings us up to date on his current thoughts about channel design and the future of Web channels on the Internet.

What elements go into good Web channel design?

Basically, channels that don't have any ITEMs or sub-channels SUCK! The "New Scientist" channel is a case in point-it is terrible for offline viewing. Also, 500K+ is an unnacceptable level of precaching for dial-up use, in my opinion.

I've looked at IDG's Active Channel site and I like the approach of having 2 different channels, one for modem and one for fast links. I imagine the difference is in the pre-caching.I would say that the page referred to by the top level CHANNEL tag (the page it goes to when you first open that channel) should load very quickly... otherwise, it can take ages before you are able to select an item within the channel.

I would also say that people should try to keep the text content of their channels changing every day or so, even if there's not much news - I think people will unsubscribe from channels that don't seem to change (it encourages the idea that channels don't work too). If you just change the text content and not the images, the precaching will be very quick.

You can read some more of my thoughts on the topic at: http://www.anyware.co.uk/anyware/cm/guide.html

Have you made any IE4 discoveries recently?

I discovered something yesterday-you can drag and drop a subscription from your Subscriptions folder (i.e. a subscription to an HTML page, not a channel) onto your Channel bar. I never knew that... there are few channels I subscribe to, but there are some plain WWW sites that I like to track, as well.

Why do you think companies have been so slow to adopt Web channels as a way to move info to their customers?

I think the general problem has been the diversity of the technology-there is no clear winner. Netscape's Netcaster, PointCast, Castanet, IE Channels... all slightly different technologies with no easy way of providing cross-browser support.

I think the two main reasons that Microsoft Active Channels have not taken off are:

1) Buggy implementation (caching problems etc.)

2) Poor design of the channels that do exist - puts people off the technology

...and a third reason that seems to be emerging is Microsoft's apparent lack of direction with Channels. They are said to be dropping the channel *bar* from IE5, but I am told that channels will definitely still be supported and exploited.

Where do you see Web channels going in the next couple of years?

I think they'll probably become a tool for TV-delivered Web content, perhaps just for navigating the content that is available, rather than controlling downloads. Microsoft and WebTV may well use them.

Automatic software updates are interesting too... IE 4.01 introduced this but nobody really knows about it. You can create "blessed" shortcuts to your applications that use a CDF file to check if there is a newer software release available-if there is, it may already have been precached (if the CDF file specifies it) and you are taken to a WWW page (also precached) that tells you about the new version, with a link to the setup file. This is all automatic, so every time you run your application it will quickly scan the cached .CDF to see if there is a new version. Could be very useful for keeping staff up to date, or home users who don't see the importance of downloading the latest software patch (i.e. WebTV).

What are the best Active Channels you've discovered?

I thought that What's New Too was nice because it used DHTML as soon as the technology was there (when it was rare for things to fly around a WWW page!). Nowadays however, I have yet to find a well-thought out channel. It disappoints me that companies like CNN remain on the fence, opting for PointCast, which is something I don't want to download; after all, I already have a browser with Channel facilities!

Any suggestions as to useful potential applications for Web Channel technology?

It's possible to use channels simply for pre-caching - for example one user of Channel Maker uses a Channel to keep large numbers of staff up to date with their latest online forms for customer queries and so on, so when they come in in the morning all the latest info is instantly available. I imagine this can improve morning start-up time as the intranet WWW server will not have to handle with 1000s of HTTP requests at 9 a.m. when everyone logs in.

You can also use a channel instead of using an HTTP-EQUIV REFRESH meta tag in pages to provide more sensible updating at specific times rather than at X seconds since the user accessed the page. CNN take note...


More channel-related information can be gleaned from the AnyWare Limited site: http://www.anyware.co.uk/