More on Digital Delivery of Web Sites

By: Steve Outing

Last Friday I wrote about the latest trend of making Web sites readable offline -- or the concept of digital delivery of a Web site's contents. Several companies are working on or have introduced software to accomplish what I believe will be the next "big thing" in online publishing. Among the companies I mentioned working in this area, I missed a California start-up called Milktruck Delivery, which just a few days ago introduced a concept that should be interesting not only to end users but to publishers.

Milktruck has released beta versions of its client application for Windows95 and NT operating systems (a Windows 3.1 version is due soon, and a Mac client by the middle of the year). It's a Web browser add-on (works with most popular browsers) that you use to "subscribe" to Web sites. For the user, here's how it works:

Launch the Milktruck Delivery program and your selected browser will automatically launch as well, taking you to a Milktruck "Doorstep" page -- a standard Web page from which you read content from Web sites that you've previously instructed it to retrieve. As you read the selected Web sites, there's no waiting for graphics to download because everything has been downloaded to your hard disk in advance while you were doing something else.

The concept is to get beyond one of the major annoyances of cruising the Web today if you have an average modem (28.8 or slower). Milktruck users pre-set what they want to receive and the software goes onto the Web and gets it for user reading at a later time -- offline. This allows readers of your Web sites to be untethered from the phone line; a reader of a newspaper Web site could take her laptop computer on the bus and read the site while traveling to work.

As an example of how this type of software can work, let's say you read the New York Times Web site. You would instruct Milktruck Delivery on what sections you want to read. (Nix the Sports section but download Front Page stories and everything that's in CyberTimes, for example.) You can configure how deep to go in a site, depending on how much disk space you have. You might want to try retrieving 2 levels, which would mean that for the pages you specified, the linked documents on the primary pages would work down to 2 levels of hyperlinks when read offline (because the linked pages have been downloaded to your hard drive).

Users can tell the software what objects to download and what to ignore (text, graphics, video, sounds, Java, Shockwave, server pushes, etc.), and they can set a limit on how much disk space is consumed by incoming Web site content. Another nice feature of Milktruck is the ability to get all the updated material from a site with one click. The software only downloads what's changed in a site since the last visit.

Publishers do not have to be passive about Web site visitors using Milktruck to read their content, according to Milktruck's CEO, You Mon Tsang. The company is encouraging publishers to create a single HTML "site specification" document on their servers that will give Milktruck users the opportunity to easily customize their subscriptions to the site. "Using that, Milktruck Delivery can give users choices -- i.e., sports business, international news, etc. The benefit of a pre-packaged site is that the user does not have to bother with URLs or crawl levels or any other Web info. They can choose exactly the info they want (more difficult to do with a manual configuration) and the newspaper will have control of what gets delivered to the user."

If you are a publisher operating a Web site, you'll need to recognize that as applications like Milktruck gain a foothold, a good chunk of your readership may be reading you offline. What are the implications here? Mostly positive, I would say, since users of this type of software who regularly visit your site are likely to configure the software to regularly and automatically visit your site, increasing the number of visits to your server. If there's a down side, it may be that offline readers will configure their software to download only small parts of the site that they are interested in. If that's an "inside" page several levels down, these "regular readers" may not see interesting new material that you've added to your home page.

I suspect that manually configuring these types of applications will be too daunting for some computer users, so publishers are advised to take advantage of Milktruck's site specification scheme as well as similar schemes by the other developers of this type of software. As always, your intent should be to make your Web site as easy to use as possible for users; now that includes configuring your site to accommodate the coming wave of offline readers.

NAA online newspaper numbers

Earlier this week the Newspaper Association of America released its figures for the number of online newspaper services in operation. It reported that 175 daily newspapers in the U.S. now operate online services on the World Wide Web, commercial online services or as dial-up BBSs, and that worldwide there are about 775 total newspaper online services (the latter figure including daily, weekly and other newspapers). These numbers are just slightly lower than my own figures; I track this business for Editor & Publisher Interactive. My last published total figure was 811, but since some newspapers operate multiple services (on the Web and one of the online services, for example) and thus get counted twice, NAA's and my numbers are very close. We agree on the current state of the online newspaper services business -- it's still growing by leaps and bounds, in activity if not in profits.

I must confess to being a little bit behind on updating my database of online newspaper servies. Notices of quite a few new services are sitting in my email box awaiting being added to the database. My estimate is that worldwide we already have reached nearly 1,000 online newspaper services in operation. Considering that I tracked only 100 at the start of 1995, that's phenomenal growth.

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