Caution: Broadband content

(Publish) — For Web designers, so-called “rich media” has long been an irresistible temptation. Plain text and HTML seems so bland to the black-clad art-school crowd-wouldn’t it be better to juice up the home page with a few animated GIF files and maybe an interactive game built in Macromedia Flash? Before you know it, your Web site might prominently feature a Java applet displaying a video of your chairman’s latest message to the shareholders.

Meanwhile, your customers-the majority of whom are using 56kbps or slower modems-are spending their time waiting: waiting for the page to download, waiting for the animation to appear, waiting for the jerky video and gap-filled audio files to play.

Thanks to such obvious design gaffes, smart companies have learned to restrain their use of bandwidth-hogging multimedia technologies. The most successful business sites all sport simple, rapidly downloading Web pages. On the Yahoo, REI, Lands’ End and Amazon.com sites, most pages have plenty of information-rich text, image files are small in size, and multimedia or broadband features-if any-are kept well off the home page. That way, customers who want to look at a large graphic or watch a video can seek those features out, while the majority can easily avoid them.

But now that broadband Internet access is becoming more widespread among home users, a lot of people are talking about broadband-enhanced content. The golden age of streaming video is about to dawn-right? Not so fast. It’s true that broadband connections are becoming more widespread, but that doesn’t exactly give Web designers carte blanche.

According to a recent study by Internet research firm Jupiter Research/Media Metrix, broadband Internet access is indeed growing. One-third of U.S. online households will have a high-speed Internet connection by 2005, Jupiter predicts-that’s over 28 million households. Stiff competition among service providers will drive the cost of broadband access down to about $20 to $25 per month-about what a dialup connection costs today. However, Jupiter predicts that broadband growth won’t really pick up steam until 2002. What’s more, most of the people surveyed by Jupiter (53%) have no interest in broadband right now.

In fact, according to an international survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers, home Internet users are primarily interested in going online to research information and use e-mail, and for that, a dialup connection is just fine, thank you very much. Streaming multimedia entertainment, according to this study, is the least popular reason for going online, garnering interest from a mere 6% of U.S. consumers and 4% of those in Europe.

The Internet’s infrastructure just doesn’t support video and other bandwidth-intensive multimedia very well yet. Keynote Systems, which monitors the performance of Web sites, recently started tracking streaming media features on popular Web sites. The initial results show that most multimedia delivery is shockingly poor. On Keynote’s scale, which goes from zero to 10, the average site rated a mere 1.87 in streaming media performance. The problems Keynote identified will be familiar to anyone who has tried to view a video on the Web: media files that are slow to start (or unavailable), poor quality video and audio, and an overall poor quality of experience for the user.

Broadband Internet access only fixes part of the problem-the “last mile” data connection. If you produce broadband content you have a host of additional expenses. You need to worry about requisitioning plenty of extra bandwidth for your network operations centers, beefing up your servers, and perhaps contracting with content delivery companies such as Akamai, which can help deliver broadband to end users more quickly. After you’ve done all of that, traffic on the Web continues to make broadband quality unpredictable.

Even when your customer is another business, you can’t count on it having a fast connection. Maybe your customer’s T-1 line is filled to capacity at the moment he tries to access your site, or maybe the CEO is checking out your site from a dialup line in his hotel room. Either way, if your site relies on multimedia and you can’t deliver it, you’re hosed.

Finally, even if the predictions are correct and one-third of all home users do have broadband connections by 2005, that still leaves another two-thirds of consumers on slow dialup lines. What sensible business would exclude 66% of its potential market?

If you must add broadband content to your site, do so with care. It may add cachet, and it might help prove to your more naive shareholders that your company really “gets” the Internet. But the bottom line is that most of your site-including, most importantly, the home page-should be easily usable by consumers on slow dialup connections. And that rule is not going to change for several years.

Dylan Tweney is an award-winning technology journalist in San Mateo, California. His Web site is at www.tweney.com.

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Caution: Broadband content