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Learning Lab

Megnut Dial-Up Revelations

by Meg Hourihan

Lately I've grown lazy around the issue of page size and images. When designing something for a client or posting a picture to my own web site, I'd often think to myself, "everyone I know has a high-speed connection now-a-days" and with little more than a cursory glance at the file size, I'd post or design in happy, dial-upless oblivion.

Oh what a spoiled fool I'd become.

It's no longer true that everyone I know has a high-speed connection, for I found myself sitting at the end of painfully slow and expensive dial-up connection in Paris, France.

City of Light, Not Bandwidth

A month in Paris sounds like a wonderful idea—who wouldn't want to enjoy thirty days in the City of Light, feasting on pain au chocolate, watching the world go by from the cozy warmth of a cafe? When my boyfriend and I decided to spend the month of November in a rented apartment in Paris, even the idea of a dial-up connection sounded foreign, exciting, somehow romantic. But let me tell you: it's cold and rainy in Paris in November, and the dial-up is verrry slow. Worse than slow, it's also expensive, so my action is limited to composing mail offline, connecting quickly to send it and download whatever's new, and disconnecting again. For someone accustomed to spending hours a day on line, this herky-jerky dial-up dance has been awkward.

It's also been infuriating. My tolerance for giant banner ads slowly loading on news sites has diminished to zero. Spam has gone from an annoyance to a very expensive annoyance. And my love of a using a Web interface for most of my online interactions has diminished in relation to the increased cost of my connectivity. Alternate ways of interacting with certain data (weblogs, my bank accounts, etc.) that had been novel or fun at home over DSL have become economic imperatives from France. The Web browser as a one-size fits all interface to hypertext, or as a means of accessing data via HTTP, doesn't cut it when the euros are flying out of the wallet.

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Working with data locally

My saviors have been client applications that work seamlessly with various online data sources and use HTTP to bring the relevant bits down to my local machine quickly, allowing me to disconnect sooner. Using an RSS reader to catch up on a variety of weblogs is the difference between reading those entries (or whatever portion I can get through RSS) or not reading them at all. Using personal financial software like Quicken allows me to seamlessly manage my finances without having to visit a single web site.

Though I use Quicken to manage my personal finances, I hadn't been too concerned about using its online connectivity features back in the US because I can do that easily enough through my bank's site. I can view all my recent transactions, pay bills, make transfers, etc. With online account access for all my credit cards, I can do the same thing. Before leaving for France, I decided to setup my online access from within Quicken, something I'd never bothered with before. Taking my connectivity for granted, I hadn't realized what an important step this was toward being able to effectively manage my accounts from Paris.

Now, with the click of a button in Quicken, I can download all my new financial data to my laptop and then disconnect. There's no need to visit citibank.com, wellsfargo.com, and americanexpress.com to download each individual account balance. More importantly, the time I spend reviewing this information no longer needs to happen while I'm connected. I can make the necessary payments within Quicken, then connect and send off my payments with one command. Though my mail is pilling up at a post office in the US, I can keep abreast of all my finances easily.

Sherlock provides similar advantages simply because it provides a more efficient interface to get information via HTTP. While it still requires you to be connected, it allows your time to focus on a specific action, e.g. tracking a plane flight. To do the same thing at northwest.com you also have to contend with banner ads, cheap travel offers, a link your to your frequent flier account, etc. When you're paying dearly for every bit, you only want the bits that matter. Watson is another example of an alternative interface that provides more targetting searching and retrieval of information via HTTP.

The third wonder of my dial-up world is NetNewsWire Lite, an RSS reader for the Mac. In the US it provided a nice alternative to poking around a bunch of sites to see if any had updated, but it didn't feel like a critical link to keep me in touch with friends and news. Now I can't afford to poke around, to download a blog only to discover the author hasn't updated since last Thursday. Whatever I can get through NewNewsWire is what I'll take. In the case of weblogs, those writers that syndicate their entire post, rather than an excerpt, have become my new best friends.

Back in the USA

So what does it all matter? I'm back in the US and these problems have gone away. I've happily forgotten the cost associated with downloading 55 spams and 1 legitimate message. But a month in France taught me many things, including the need to be aggressive about asking for your check at the restaurant if you want to get out of there before midnight. I also learned some valuable lessons that I'd be wise to remember now that I've returned to the wonderful land of a high-speed wireless connection.

First of all, I don't think I'll ever take my high-speed connection, or cheap dial-up, for granted again. But the biggest surprise was discovering the answer to a question I hadn't bothered to ask: why is it important to use the latest technologies and standards?

My personal site, megnut.com, uses an all-CSS layout and has an RSS feed because, from a geeky point-of-view, that seems "right" or "cool." But there was no business or technical requirement for my site to use CSS for layout rather than tables. I felt no imperative to use these technologies for any reason except to gratify my geek ego. But France changed that.

When I was connecting via dial-up, I received the greatest benefit from those individuals, companies, and devices using current standards. The flexibility that XML and CSS offer will become increasingly valuable as the adoption rate of handheld and mobile devices (such as the Danger Hiptop) grows, as wireless networks and connectivity points become omnipresent, and as people connect and communicate in ways we didn't even imagine a few years ago.

Now I really get it: giving people multiple ways to access their data, offering multiple views of content through a variety of interfaces, allows flexibility far beyond what we get through a standard browser. Offering data through web services or RSS allows users to build interfaces to extend functionality not only because it's cool but also because it can provide critical connectivity.

My next step? Offering all my megnut.com weblog content in its entirety via RSS rather than just entry excerpts. My goal for that site has always been to share my writing with whoever's interested in reading it. Making it easy for my readers to do so however they want—whether through an RSS reader or a browser or some unknown device—is more important to me now than ever before.

Meg Hourihan is an independent Web consultant and freelance writer. She is a co-author of the book, We Blog: Publishing Online with Weblogs.

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