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Don't underestimate the importance of fun

by Giles Turnbull -- 2001/01/12

Interview: Tim Bray of talks to WriteTheWeb about the site - why it's there, what it's all about, and what new features are on the way.

WriteTheWeb: What was the spark that started Why on earth did you want to do it in the first place?

Tim Bray: Well, I've been using the Net since before it was the Internet, and I've always had this inchoate feeling that the net was a place; given that, we need maps and pictures of that place. Maybe I was influenced by the cyberpunk novels of the 70's. I published a paper on it back in '96 but couldn't see a business case or a convincing public demo.

Sometime in '98 I saw the business case, then shortly thereafter the Open Directory Project popped up as a perfect testbed/showcase.

WtW: Why Antarctica? (presumably because it doesn't "belong to anyone" - but is there more to it than that?)

TB: Also it's got a nice aspect ratio and fits well on the screen. Also it's just a nice, memorable shape. Also it's large but finite, which is important if you want people to be able to hold the general map in their head. Finally it's a cool name, even though nobody (sigh) can spell it, so we had to purchase "" for the showcase.

WtW: Some people might wonder - what's the point? Yes, it's a fun way of searching for stuff, but is it practical? Since people are used to simple web interfaces (and you can't get simpler than the Open Directory), why make things more difficult for them?

TB: People were used to simple character interfaces until GUIs came along. I love the Open Directory, but Visual Net just gets more information on the screen, as to how big the relative categories are, and which of the sites are the most important and visible. The point is that you waste less time in blind alleys.

We're not trying to replace search engines. If you know something's out there, and one or two things about it, a search engine does a good job of finding it.

If you want to know "what does H-R have on pension contributions?" or "What are the important resources in Invertebrate Neurology?" search engines don't help; we do.

Bottom line: every organization in the civilized world has just finished making a bunch of huge investments in intranet/extranet construction. We can incent people to use them a little more and make their use more efficient. You don't have to do very much of that to show a big positive ROI.

Finally, don't underestimate the importance of fun; the browser won because it was more fun than gopher or ftp.

WtW: has been live for some weeks now. What's the response been like from users? What sort of traffic levels are you getting?

TB: A few hundred thousand maps on a good day. Response has been positive by a large majority, with a small proportion saying "huh? I don't get it..." and an even smaller one saying "this is total crap, you guys are morons."

WtW: Do people prefer the flat maps or the 3D maps?

TB: It's almost impossible to answer that; at the moment, there are lots of computers which can't really do the 3D very effectively because they have primitive video cards or are just slow, and it requires a download. So, the 2-D gets more traffic. But if they were easily accessible, who knows what would happen?

I personally prefer the 2-D, but lots of smart people I've presented to, both technical and nontechnical, think the 3-D is the future and the 2-D is the mouldy past.

WtW: How did you decide where on Antarctica to put each category?

TB: Aesthetics.

WtW: Is it fair to say that some parts of the map are arbitrary? For instance, the "games" region is a long way from the "arts" region, but they may well contain common themes that could be picked out in a more traditional search engine through simple use of hyperlinks.

TB: The top-level placement, as noted, is based on aesthetics. Nothing else is really arbitrary. Also, one of the nice things about virtual space is that things can be in two places at once. For example, lots of sites will be in both Arts and Games.

In my 1995-6 research, described in the paper above, I placed the sites based on the strengths of the linkage between them, and the result was (much to my surprise) not very interesting.

WtW: Has the demonstration had a positive business effect for your company,

TB: Absolutely... nobody would know we exist if it weren't for The business model for making money on the Internet may still be cloudy, but as a marketing vehicle for running a demo-based promotion of software, you can't beat it for cost-effectiveness or reach. (In case it's not obvious, our business is selling Visual Net, the software behind, for enterprise intranets and extranets.)

Also, proves that Visual Net can handle pretty big databases and the performance holds up. That gives potential customers confidence that we're not vaporware. Also, it's a fantastic QA platform for us.

WtW: Can you tell us any more plans you might have in store for new developments at

TB: Sure. In the recent past, most of the work has gone into supporting Netscape (what a nightmare). We will make the chat more compelling.

We will make the 3-D more organic, it all looks a little too clean and neat just at the moment. We have some more information about the sites in our database (quality of service) and we want to get that into the map.

Also we're starting to track when sites show up, so that whenever you go anywhere, you can have new arrivals since your last visit to be highlighted. Also, sites should be able to arrange to have their logos on the sides of their sites in 3-D. The idea pipeline is huge. And of course all this stuff goes into the Visual Net product that we sell for a living.