The Dark Side of Animated Graphics on the Web

By: Steve Outing

You see them everywhere on the World Wide Web. They're the latest craze. But when not done right, they are really annoying.

I'm talking about animated graphics, which if you're using versions 2.0 or 3.0 of Netscape you see all too often around the Web. There's one from Netscape Communications itself on the online-news Web archive site, which I operate: currently a whirling tornado as part of an advertising banner.

First, let me say that animated banners are a fine way, particularly for advertisers, to get a computer user's attention. When you go to a Web page and on that first screen is an animation, your eye is naturally going to be drawn to it before anything else.

The problem is in implementation of animated graphics, particularly for ad banners. I've heard a number of reports, and received a number of email notes as well, from Web users annoyed by animated ad banners that don't stop. That is, the animation on a Web page continues to run indefinitely. I'm seeing this too often on various sites around the Web.

Particularly when the animated banner is an advertisement, this can work to the detriment of the advertiser, because the moving graphic distracts users trying to read the content of the rest of the page. Animated ad banners have a dark side when used incorrectly, in that they annoy viewers, who may hold a grudge against the advertiser (or for that matter, the publishing site).

The solution is simple enough: Set a time limit on how long the animation runs before shutting itself off. It should be long enough so that the user sees the full animation. So, you may want it to run two or three times (depending on length of the animation sequence) before turning off. Failure to do this could antagonize the very people you're trying to attract to your message.

The same notion should be applied to editorial content on Web sites. Animated graphics on a Web page should be of short duration and, ideally, the user should be in command of when the animation goes on and off.

How animated graphics work

The animations I'm talking about here are simple GIF format files, not the more sophisticated Java applets that require a Java-enabled Web browser to see. Animated GIFs are a relatively simple technology that allow a sequence of GIF images to be displayed on a Web browser in sequence to give the impression of an animation. The Web browser cycles through the frames based on the instructions contained in the GIF sequence. Only selected browsers, such as the most recent Netscape Navigators, can run the animations.

Animated GIFs are relatively small files (many are as small as 5K for the sequence) that are loaded onto the client computer when a page containing an animation is viewed. When the animation is running, there is no more communication between the client browser and the remote server; it's all self-contained on the client PC.

The computer resources used by these GIF animations are minuscule, according to Tim Miller, president of Avitech LLC in Boulder, Colorado, a consulting firm that specializes in Internet Web sites and Java applets. He says he's noticed no performance degradation on other applications as the animations run their cycle. How the actual animations look on a user's screen can vary widely, dependent on the processor speed of the client computer, Miller says. On an older PC, animations can look jerky and slow (and thus, unprofessional), while a viewer with a Pentium processor will see them run quickly and smoothly.

Miller uses a Windows application called GIF Constructor to create these animations. The program allows you to create delay times between frames of the animations; delays between animation sets; and, most importantly, allows you to control how long the animation will run before shutting itself off. The animated GIF spec also allows you to support user control, so that the viewer can click on the running animation to stop it or start it. But most browsers can't recognize and act on this feature of the spec yet.

This user feedback feature could be put to some nice effects, such as creating a static banner that when clicked on runs a brief animation before hyperlinking to an advertiser's Web page. Miller says such tricks are easily executable using Java or Javascript, but trickier using animated GIFs. Since Java-enabled Web browsers are still rare, it may make sense to support animated GIFs that most people will be able to view.

Contact: Tim Miller,

How safe is your print pension?

British newspaper industry consultant Colin Brannigan recently included this editorial in his newsletter for UK publishers. I reprint it here with his permission:

My Pension is Pretty Safe, But Will Print-Only Publishing Deliver Yours?

By Colin Brannigan
The Web is still a case of waiting and watching among UK publishers. It's not quite like the old free newspaper days, when the early arrivals were treated as pariahs, but there are some similarities.

Don't do anything that might damage the core product. Why should we compete with ourselves? And if, heaven forbid, it should succeed, we can buy out the winners. Publishers could argue, rightly, that it's all very well for me, semi-retired, with my pension arriving unfailingly at the beginning of every month and with no business at risk, to indict them for their lack of innovation when no publisher, anywhere in the world, is making money, serious or otherwise from publishing on the Web. But as someone who is glued to a PC screen as if it were a radar set, scanning the airwaves to track trends and threats and hone in on opportunities for my Newsletters and New Media consultancy, let me paint a picture for you.

Firstly, the pace of development on the Internet is absolutely frenetic. Allied to that, there seems to be an optimistic assumption that an established, well rounded UK local newspaper, with its unrivaled news coverage, local advertising and subsidized cover price will prove more than a match for the Web. But the world is changing before our eyes.

Pipex has just upgraded users like me to version 3 software which gives 100% local call access throughout the UK, 1Mb of free space for our own Web pages, up to four additional mailboxes, the ability to read our email from any PC anywhere in the world -- and version 2.0 of Netscape Navigator. It was released on May 14 and you might think will see us through to 1997. It probably won't. There's already an even later version of Navigator, code-named Atlas, available for downloading. The browser includes audio and video facilities as well as chat features.

Where does that leave our core product, the cheap and cheerful, well-rounded local newspaper? Assume, if you will, a rival electronic product has entered the market with audio and moving pictures, and there's a browser capable of viewing them, that it has online live chat, searchable classifieds, 24-hour updated and customized news, that cable TV and telecom companies have also entered the market, local phone calls are free and modem speeds are 10 times faster than today's, that there are electronic niche products creaming off motors (see Online US Auto Trader), entertainment listings (watch Microsoft's CityScape), property (with video tours), dating personals (see in the US), recruitment (look at PeopleBank), that secure financial transactions have become commonplace, and that all of this can be received through the family's interactive TV.

Does our print-only local (or metro) newspaper look quite so well-rounded, dominant or securely positioned? Now you may believe that's just fanciful codswallop, and the Internet is simply trendy malarky, and print-only is still a legitimate long-term strategic option. In which case, OK, my pension from Reed Elsevier is pretty safe. ... And as for the future, electronic publishing, in its many forms, already accounts, thank the Lord, for 16% of Reed Elsevier's 3 billion-pound revenue.

Colin Brannigan has been editor of The Sheffield Star, is a former national president of the Guild of Editors, a former member of the UK Press Council, and last year took early retirement as a regional managing director with Reed Regional Newspapers. He can be reached at


A couple quick clarifications for my Friday (May 24) column:
* In the item about America Online's Digital Cities I included a list of U.S. cities that will be next up for the localized service in the coming months -- after Atlanta and Philadelphia -- but neglected to include San Diego, which also is in that group.
* In an item about upcoming features to be added to the New York Times on the Web service, my timing was off on the Bosnia photo project mentioned. While it is being announced today, it won't go live until June 10.

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