Online Potholes: The Need for Standards

8 Jun

A version of this appeared on ClickZ.

Pardon me while I whine a bit, but I am getting really tired of the TV commercial touting the power that the Internet has now. You know, the one with the light bulb that shatters the hammer.

Don’t get me wrong. The Net is indeed an awesome force. Yet, I’m afraid too many of us have our eyes closed, or are squinting too hard, when we pronounce the online world as the eighth wonder of the modern world.

So allow me the dubious task of pointing out some essential flaws of daily existence.

When you got your ClickZ email today, was it in text format or HTML? Did it come to you over a modem at home or a T-1 at work? Did you read it on a PC, a Mac or a PDA? Did you have your monitor set to 32,000 colors or 16 million?

Now, by comparison, when you last watched ER, did you do it on a television? Were you able to see all the characters, or did you have to go to another television in order to see Dr. Greene? Did it take too long to download? If your TV was a black and white set, did you worry that you didn’t get the whole experience? For that matter, did you have to worry that you had the latest version of television to get all the show’s impact?

See my point? We spend way too much time dealing with uncertainties that no other media has ever had to cope with. Even colonial newspaper publishers didn’t have to worry what they were going to put in the press; paper was a standard choice. Today The New York Daily News can print tabloid format and The New York Times prints broad-sheet. Both still print on paper, and as far as I know, you can read either one without changing your glasses.

The fundamental problem we Internet types face today is that we have to expect too much from our customer. Think about it. They have to know what kind of email they can receive – that’s if we assume they understand the differences between HTML and text in the first place. If they visit our sites, we often expect them to know how to download add-ons so they can get the full impact.

Can anyone quote me an accurate figure of how many email users have HTML versus text capabilities? And while you’re at it, explain to me why I have to craft a special version of my message to get the most out of AOL’s mail capabilities.

If some genius out there reading this hears nothing else, please create a fail-proof way to deliver the highest quality message to every user that subscribes to my client’s newsletter. A way that doesn’t ask the user a single question. If you really want to impress us and make a killing, come up with a simple, intuitive way to make sure every subscriber gets the same quality message.

Come on people: when’s the last time a traditional direct marketer had pricing that was dependent on whether the format was paper or stone tablets?

A colleague who traditionally works on a Mac was in another of our offices when she had to use a PC. Suddenly she saw HTML mail the way it was intended. Do we really have to put two computers on every desk in order to assure uniformity of our message?

Please don’t take my kvetching as a condemnation of the Net. I’m not that torqued. But today we have companies racing to the high-speed world of broadband when we still haven’t taken off the training wheels.

If left unresolved, many of these threatened issues turn our livelihoods into a Tower of Babel.

We have brought the easy converts online; the people willing to tolerate some speed bumps. But those still out there like things that work smoothly. It’s time to get the road crews focusing on the potholes while we still have time.