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Broadband Today and Tomorrow

By Christopher Schmitt
Rank 1

At A Glance

Wondering what broadband really is, and how to use it both as a user and developer? Here's the scoop.

"They may not be lightning fast, but 2400 bps modems are inexpensive, easily available, and nothing to be embarrassed about."
— Tracy LaQuey with Jeanne C. Ryer
from The Internet Companion published in 1993

Broadband media is just one of many Internet industry buzzwords. Just like any other buzzword, there's going to be some time before the buzz becomes a reality for most of the Internet community.

Broadband deals with the actual ability to send and receive information through a high-speed connection. Currently, there are four ways to access it:

  • Cable: uses the same coaxial cable as a television and connects to the Internet via a cable modem.
  • DSL (Digital Subscriber Line): works transparently over your telephone line, so you can use your telephone and surf the Web at the same time without interference or interruption.
  • ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network): requires getting special adapters for a digital phone circuit from your friendly local phone company.
  • Satellite: requires a two-foot wide dish that receives only data and hardware that pipes it to your computer. You'll still need a complementary connection to send out requests.

At the dawn of the new millennium about 40 million people in American households were hooked up to the Internet, but only 10 percent of them were connecting at broadband-capable speeds.

For most Americans that comes as good news because site developers are still compressing their images, trying to replace HTML hacks by using CSS, and so on—all in an effort to get an impact with a minimal number of files being sent through the proverbial pipe.

Where does that leave the growing—albeit slowly—broadband audience? Today, the situation leaves broadband-users viewing sites that were built for those with 56k or less modem connections—if you're lucky. There are still plenty of Web sites built by people who just want you to see their 125 MB inline photo image of their pet cat.

Some would argue that this is a fine use for all that speed—except for that image of the cat. And in some ways, it is.

As a broadband user, you're able to move around faster and surf the sites you enjoy or use on a regular basis, as well as ditch the ones you didn't mean to visit. Couple that amazing speed with the treats of streaming MP3s and seeing movie trailers almost instantaneously and you're enjoying the best of what the Web has to offer today, without the wait.

But no matter how appealing this scenario sounds, it isn't the future of the Web.

Didn't I See This Already?

Remember that movie preview for Hannibal that you thought was better than the entire Battlefield Earth movie you paid good money to see at the theater? Chances are, you can see it again at Apple's QuickTime site. And that tune that's stuck in your head from your middle school dance so long ago? Well, you can hurry to Napster or any one of its clones and download it.

If you're a broadband user, you get to view these trailers and access these MP3s with the click of a mouse. However, this repurposing of content from other mediums doesn't make your Web visit a true broadband experience. Broadband only allows for faster delivery of these mediums in suitable file formats.

"[the] . . . repurposing of content from other mediums
doesn't make your Web visit a true broadband experience."

It's amazing that one of the things that have passed as broadband, when they really aren't, are bloated Macromedia Flash movies. As a vector-based art program, Flash movies shouldn't be such monster sizes that you need a broadband connection in order to see the material in your own lifetime—unless, of course, that's your audience. But just because you can pile JPEGs and import audio files into a huge Flash movie doesn't mean you should. Forcing tools to do jobs that they aren't designed to handle effectively doesn't make it a true broadband experience, nor does it make you a skilled designer.

Broadband Future

With the Web as the medium, broadband can deliver a message or messages with greater complexity than narrowband sites. But the limited audience base and the development costs are causing developers of original content to be slow in coming to the forefront of broadband Web design and slow in becoming commercially successful.

One of the first steps into a broadband future will be when DVDs are ported to the Internet. Sure, you can currently download movies from, but the controlling mechanism is still around the movie in the application. By pairing QuickTime with Flash, broadband developers will be able to add these controls into the video environment. Developers will finally be able to completely abandon the computer interface (no more scroll bars) for one that's custom-built for the experience.

Game consoles and smart digital video devices like TiVo are the ancestors of the broadband experience. Combining these two technologies, you'll be able to create an identification card of the types of sites a person likes to surf and have the device make recommendations to the user—your broadband device will finally become smarter than the average couch potato.

Designing for Self-Exploration

The true broadband experience is about exploration—much like surfing the Web can be about exploring new sites and solving everyday problems. For example, online we can check the weather without having to wait for the weather forecast at eleven or pre-order the new U2 album before it goes on sale.

Knowledge comes through experimenting with successes and failures in new environments. Remember what it was like when you first got on the Web? Or when you struggled with esoteric site navigation like Superbad?

"Finding the right balance between leading users and allowing them to find their own way is a skill that broadband developers will have to learn."

Finding the right balance between leading users and allowing them to find their own way is a skill that broadband developers will have to learn. In a great broadband experience, users will still roam your site but they'll be guided by well-crafted navigation. Of course, good content doesn't hurt, too.

Temptation Broadband

So what will a true broadband experience be like? Picture this: You log on to Temptation Island's Web site, and instead of being presented with the typical page layout that's essentially a placeholder for a description of an episode, you're shown a setting drawn from that episode. You see an empty, but slowly swinging hammock, while listening to a summary of the episode. Sound clips from the episode enhance the experience. As you click on vector-based text links for more information about the couple whose lives were transformed in a conversation on that hammock, the hammock you see before you grows in its importance to the overall events of the series.

That's when you breakdown and decide to download the QuickTime clip and view the entire episode for a dollar and twenty-five cents. Press another link and you're taken to an online store where you can purchase the exact brand of hammock used at the tropical island resort. But before you type in your credit card number, you notice that the average buyer's satisfaction rating isn't as high as you would like. So you opt to enter the chat that has formed to talk about just that episode.

Then, with your simple but standard interface device—the remote control—you move a joystick lever to the left to check out the latest experiences of another couple on another side of the island. Or flip up to see the history of the current couple in their own words, with video of their dates, or visuals that set the mood for the content being presented.

Now that's broadband!

When Are the Visionaries Arriving?

Where Do You Stand?

Do you design/develop for broadband or narrow band audiences?

Let us know in this week's reader poll!

Unfortunately, Web developers today are mostly concerned with creating maximum impact in a small package. Potential broadband developers and designers are becoming overwhelmed with managing and streaming large files that are associated with these broadband explorations. Today developers are just getting their feet wet. But somewhere, some person or people will connect together and harness the abilities that broadband gives them, and we will find ourselves at a whole new level of Web design.

When the television came into existence in 1950s, pre-existing radio programs came onto the tube trying to co-opt the medium. It took visionaries like Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, Milton Berle, and Jack Paar to present the possibilities of what television could really be. So, it will be with the new breed of Web designers, who will break the boundaries of current workarounds and reach new ground through well-crafted online experiences.

Christopher is a senior design technologist for the Orlando-area based MindComet Corporation, which does numerous things including branding for broadband. Schmitt can be reached at And, yes, he's still in shock that he actually used the words "temptation island" in this article as well.

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Copyright © 2003 CMP Media LLC