Web Techniques Magazine
May 1998
Volume 3, Issue 5

Free Association

By Michael Swaine

 Free doesn't always mean free, as the Free Software Foundation likes to point out. Free verse is often copyrighted, free love risky, free agents expensive, and free speech about free-range beef can get you hauled into court in Texas.

 Netscape Navigator is free now (no cost to the consumer), but it's also free in that you can copy Netscape's Communicator code and build on it. This is definitely a bold and possibly a brilliant move on Netscape's part. The entire software-development community is invited to participate in the Bazaarification of Communicator's code (see www.mozilla.org). Catch the free spirit at the Mozilla site, but don't think that you're free to turn in Marc Andreessen's code as your homework assignment. Computer science instructors have begun using plagiarism-catching software to compare student programs against often-copied code on the Net, thwarting the freeloaders.

 Free has positive connotations. Al Gore might have had better luck with "information freeway" than "information superhighway." But even on free asphalt, Microsoft would charge for Slate. TANSTAAFL and not everything is free on the freeway.

L.A. is a great big freeway, but Mayor Riordan wants it-or more precisely, its concentration of high-tech companies-to be known henceforth as Digital Coast. Oh, yeah. I'm sure. Well, he's free to call it that, and the rest of us are free to ignore him.

 Al Gore's boss wants to keep the Net a duty-free zone. The administration has proposed to the World Trade Organization that downloading software, accessing financial information, and other Internet information transfer be kept free of customs duties. That's a good idea, but hardly controversial.

 A far more freewheeling proposal is that the Net should be an ad-free zone. Solid Oak Software doesn't float that notion exactly, but it has added a banner advertisement filter to its Cybersitter software. It's not the first tool for blocking advertising on the Net, it won't be the last, and chances are it won't have much effect. But who knows? I suspect that an ad-free Net would turn out to be not what Web surfers really want, but they should be free to choose.

 BTW, could someone tell Al's boss that the four freedoms of American tradition are not market, trade, lunch, and love?

Free trials are no free lunch. Apparently one reason that local ISPs are prospering while their larger competitors are not is that the locals are less free with the freebies.

 Microsoft's ActiveX technology is in free fall. According to a CNet news story, ActiveX has failed to catch on because of poor marketing, customer confusion, and security problems.

 Free associating, XML, another Internet technology with X in its name, is doing all right. Book publishers and Christian clergy are among those who have jumped on the XML bandwagon. The latter have proposed specialized sermon tags, such as <SCRIPTURE>. At first glance, it might seem that a <SCRIPTURE> tag would be superfluous; don't these people all own Bibles? But it turns out that it's an issue of semantically tagged information in context: They want to see how other clergy use scriptural quotations. Sounds to me like a particularly savvy use of this new technology.

 There's a free-for-all raging among companies wanting to provide Web ratings. Apparently one contender is Neilsen, the system responsible for rating television shows. I may be missing something, but it seems to me that porting Neilsen's cumbersome system to the Web is a bonehead idea. Self-reports from statistical samples are wildly expensive, subject to huge bias, and can't be responsive enough for Web speed. TV uses this approach because, as a one-way medium, it has no choice. The Web is free of such constraints.

 That's it for this month. Feel free to drop me a line.

Mike is an editor at large, contributing editor, and columnist for Dr. Dobb's Journal and Web Techniques. He can be reached at mswaine@swaine.com.

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Last modified: 5/5/98