Webmasters advocate an open environment

Netscape Communications Corp. and Microsoft Corp. aim to compete for market share in World Wide Web browsers by emphasizing unique features of their particular products but that will not gain them any new federal fans.

Government Webmasters see their job as making sure that the largest possible number of people are able to get to the information posted on federal Web sites. And that means openness in browsers not the relatively closed environments the two leading browser companies are advancing.

Alan Goldstein director of technology integration for the Navy's Office of Information and Webmaster for the Navy's popular Public Affairs Library site said he wants to use technology on the server side that allows "anyone to read what I put up."

Capt. Terry Bowman chief of technology integration for the Air Force's Office of Public Affairs and Webmaster for the Air ForceLink site wants "to serve the lowest common [technology] denominator because we want to bring in as many people as we can to our site.

"We cannot lose sight of the fact that content is king on the Web " he said.

The lack of ability of various browsers to handle new technologies such as animation makes it hard on federal Webmasters seeking to serve a broad swath of the public Bowman added.

"From a content development point of view it is difficult to keep customers on the high end and the low end happy " he said. "Some people are cruising on 286s some people come in here from [America Online] and some have the newest browsers." Gimmicky features would satisfy those advanced users Bowman said "but who are you going to cut out?"

Federal Webmasters cannot afford to ignore the amount of traffic or "hits" they receive not only from AOL but also from key providers such as CompuServe as well as people who use Mosaic from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

Bowman said this position applies not only to the main Air ForceLink home page on the Web but also to the approximately 165 other public Web sites set up by the Air Force - a number that grows monthly and sometimes weekly.

Kurt Mulholm director of the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) believes not only in openness in Web architecture but also in the ability to support multiple platforms.

"We have a lot of universities in the R&D community that use Macintoshes and we need to support them " he said. "We're not in the position of recommending a browser or a server. Our job is to make the information available to the widest amount of people...and that's what an information delivery organization is supposed to do."

But this open approach to the design of federal Web sites does not mean defaulting to a text-only baseline Mulholm added.

"The real power of the Web is in multimedia " he said. "We want to try and serve the lowest common denominator without stripping ourselves of the functions I think are important. "We need to do sound and graphics and we have set up a Java team to see how far we can go with that."

Mulholm does not want to see federal Web sites turned into the electronic version of a card catalog just to satisfy the need for an open architecture.

Carlynn Thompson director of research development and acquisition information at DTIC and the incoming chairwoman of the Federal Webmasters Consortium said the consortium already has reached a definition of "open " meaning browsers that can handle HTML Version 2.0 "which allows you to reach out to the user community."

Thompson added that these open standards do not apply to the development of agency-specific intranets where users could opt for one specific server or browser with technology enhancements that would aid the operation and mission of that particular intranet.

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