Culture News from Wired News: Experimental Browser Maps Web's Words
by Janelle Brown
5:02am 9.Dec.97.PST Matthew Fuller may not be the only netizen who hates Netscape, but he's one of the few who is doing something about it. As part of a British design group called I/O/D, Fuller has helped create an experimental browser of his own. Complete with an intellectual subtext and an abstract interface, the Web Stalker is intended to put the user in control of the Web - although it's a Web that doesn't look like the one you know.
"A lot of the working capabilities within the [standard commercial] browser have been determined by the needs of advertisers, corporation, and so on, rather than experimentation with the format of the Web," explains Fuller. "So much of visuals on the Web are just noise - ad banners and eye candy - we wanted to give people access to the most important information, which right now are words."
I/O/D is a three-year-old, three-person design group (Fuller, plus Simon Pope and Colin Green) that began by producing a Director-based interactive art zine. Web Stalker, a svelte 1.8-MB browser, was born from their interest in the social implications of software and information visualization.
Perhaps best described as a Lynx browser crossed with a Ven Diagram, Web Stalker is based on the belief that the user should be able to define the different functions they want to apply to a Web document, rather being than launched through a finished Web site. The user opens up Web Stalker as a blank screen and then builds windows to perform different functions: a crawler parses Web documents, and a map function creates a local dynamic map that uses circles and lines to represent URLs and links. You use the extractor to grab the text out of the particular document you select to view, and the dismantle window to list the components of page.
"We got quite an irate response from the Web designers, since it rips any kind of page metaphor or graphic design," explains Fuller. Version 2.0, however, will be more design-friendly with GIF extraction capabilities and a search engine.
But while some detractors have pointed out that Web Stalker is more of an art project than a software program, that the maps are hard to read, and it's not particularly effective for real surfing, the browser is representative of the current interest in alternative information mapping. Not only have a plethora of upstart browser companies begun offering their alternatives to the Netscape way of life, but individual artists and groups like I/O/D are experimenting as well.
"I have to applaud anyone who tries to make an alternative browser of any kind," explains Paul Haeberli, a 3-D artist at SGI who's been developing his own browsers on the side. "The big two, IE and Netscape, are analogous to Timeand Newsweek- always the same cover story. Where is the Graphisbrowser or the Martha Stewart Livingbrowser?"
Haeberli's experiments include a reader-friendly browser called Space for the SGI machine that displays HTML pages in columns rather than scrolling text, and a markup language and browser that animate text and graphics, instead of offering static scrolling pages. Both projects are extremely experimental; both are being distributed only to friends.
"I think we're at a transition point - there hasn't been an amazing new breakthrough in the visual metaphor in a long time. The Web wasn't a spatial breakthrough, it was a hypertext breakthrough," says Steven Johnson, author of the book Interface Culture . "Now you're seeing things where we're trying to come up with a more abstract visualization of Web space ... but none are clicking yet."
Johnson points out that, like Web Stalker, other upstart browsers have also experimented with Web mapping, but gave up because "the information space is too big to take in." Perspecta, for example, created in part by MIT pundit Nicholas Negroponte along with Steve Holtzman, creates a navigational mapping system of information using meta data tags. But until XML standards evolve - which will encourage meta data tags to be inserted into Web documents as well - Perspecta is creating its systems only for individual client extranets.
"Instead of mapping the Web - which is currently an insurmountable task - we're taking finite information and finding a way to let users navigate through more effectively," explains Perspecta's director of product marketing, David Clarke. "A picture is worth a thousand words - if you can see how a page relates to other pieces of information, that's invaluable."
And despite the fact that there is still no perfect alternative to Netscape, and Web Stalker is likely to frustrate more people than it will enlighten, the sentiment is that the underground alternative browser movement is at least a step in a right direction. There has to be something beyond scrolling text and cutesy applets - so it's just a question of time until one of these browsers revolutionizes online information interfaces.
"It's encouraging - the idea that there's this low-level innovation, rather than everything trickling down from Apple and Microsoft," says Johnson. "Even if 90 percent end up not working, it's still encouraging."