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Web Developer's Journal: Web Site Trends

Jul 11, 2000, 21:21 (3 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Andrew Starling)

By Andrew Starling, Web Developer's Journal

How are sites changing? Where are we heading? There's remarkably little information on the Internet about the changing fashions in site design and technology, but here's a quick glimpse into what's going on.

In many ways site design has stabilized over the last year or so. The big corporations who now dominate the Web have brought stability, and maybe a touch of dullness too.

They're all big fans of usability theory - the science of how easy sites are to use. So it's goodbye to the old days of in your face graphics and fancy backgrounds. Heavily graphical sites are still out there, but most of them are in league division two. All the premiership sites are slick, fast-loading, plain and look pretty much the same as each other.

Here's a straw-poll survey of ten top sites. They may not be the all-time top ten most popular sites on the Web, but they're close, and they do represent the top ten Web properties as defined by MediaMetrix.

Home pages of ten popular sites

Site Width
(pixels)
No. of col-
umns
Java-
Script
White back-
ground
Black
text
Blue
links
Server
www.aol.com 640 2 * * * *

AOL
Solaris

www.yahoo.com 640 3 - *
* * Unknown
FreeBSD
www.msn.com Adapts 4 or 5 * * * - MS IIS Win2000
www.wired.com 640 3 * * * - Apache Solaris
www.excite.com Adapts 3 * * * * Netscape Solaris
infoseek.go.com 800 5 * * * * Unknown
Solaris
www.about.com 640 4 - * * * Apache
FreeBSD
www.nbc.com 800 3 * * * - MS IIS
NT4
www.amazon.com Adapts 3 - * * * Apache
Unix
www.cnn.com 800 3 * * * * Netscape
Solaris

Note: Where the JavaScript column shows a dash "-", this indicates no obvious client-side JavaScript in the source file, but hidden JavaScript might be used. Widths show the target window width, not the exact width of the page.

What hits you straight away is the consistency of style. These Web pages are wearing conservative lounge suits. White backgrounds, black text and blue links are almost obligatory, with only a few minor touches of originality. Pretty much every home page looks like the content page of a magazine (maybe even the same magazine).

From the visitor's point of view, all this consistency is probably a good thing. Thin files containing very little formatting download in a trice. There's plenty of comforting familiarity and next to no confusion. The existence of what amounts to a house-style across the Web (and its simplicity) is one of the strongest signs that in the space of a couple of years the Web has moved from a minority pursuit to a mainstream medium.

Not much joy if you're a graphic designer though, or even a page designer. Whole hours and tens of dollars must have gone into the design of those identikit pages. If graphics are your bag, you won't find your services in high demand by the top sites.

More joy if you're a programmer. JavaScript is almost everywhere. One of its more interesting uses is resizing pages according to window size. This is popular because visitors are still split between 640 pixel wide windows and 800 wide. So our straw poll shows no clear pattern in pixel widths for fixed pages, instead a fairly even split between 640 and 800. Two years ago everybody designed for 640. It looks like 800 is either catching up or has already caught up.

Servers

There's a broad spread of server software too. A year ago, a study by e-gineer.com showed that Apache, IIS and Netscape shared almost exactly equal popularity in the top 130 sites. That study hasn't been repeated this year, but on the Web as a whole, Apache is racing ahead.

In this respect, the top 130 sites are not very representative of the entire Web, a fact which was recognized in the original study.

Netcraft is the best site for server statistics, and its latest study, covering an outrageous 17 million sites, shows Apache in a commanding and ever increasing lead, with 63% of the server software market, and MS trailing second with just 21%, with no other brand holding more than 10%.

Browsers

At least Microsoft can take comfort in the browser wars. About 18 months ago the split between Netscape and Microsoft was 50/50. Then along came IE5 and Netscape lost the way, though its decline does appear to be bottoming out.

The current figures from Browser Watch show IE with a 59% market share and Netscape on 26%. Our logs at the Web Developer's Journal show a slightly worse decline, with 75% for IE and just 20% for Netscape.

The inside story at Mozilla is that Netscape is trying to speed up the development of N6, with the aim of releasing it late this year. But unless they get an unusually smooth ride, it's more likely to be out next spring.

Crystal Ball Time

And now for some predictions.

First, graphics. PNG has been around for some time now, yet the take-up is so small it's barely measurable. SVG looks more promising, but before it can take off it will need integral support in browsers. N6 won't support it, so it looks like being next year's technology. For now we'll be sticking with good old GIFs and JPEGs.

On the original content front, the Web is due for a shake-up. The reduction in value of dotcoms, combined with heavy discounting on banner ad rates, means that many content providers can't make a profit from original content. The cost and return figures just don't work out, and in this new, realistic Internet environment, that's a big deal.

This will have a significant impact on the way the Web looks. Many content providers will make better use of existing material and emphasize reference over topicality. Meanwhile the successful topical content providers will be able to get their content repeated on more channels.

It's a change that's already in progress, but expect it to speed up as dotcoms run out of money. Fast-changing content will be rarer, yet repeated on a very large number of mirrors. Even now, if you take an Associated Press news story from about five months ago, select some specific text and enter it into AltaVista, you'll find a hundred or so sites repeated the exact same story.

Finally the good news, and once again it's programmers who are the beneficiaries. There's plenty going on at the server end. Last summer, e-gineer found that 70% of the top 130 Web sites used CGI. ASP is well established, and PHP turns up surprisingly often. Yet surely the server technology that's on the rampage right now is Java. Java servlets and Java Server Pages offer great flexibility and are only limited by the availability of programmers to apply them.

So that's it for this round-up of trends. More plain pages, less graphics, less original content and plenty of overworked programmers at the server end. See you at Java nightschool.

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