Technology & You

Untangle These Web Sites, Please

I spend a good part of every day perusing corporate Web sites, and I am constantly struck by how bad many of them are at their mission of communicating with customers or selling products. More than anything else, I think this is a reminder that for all the buzz and excitement, the Web remains a painfully immature medium that people are only beginning to understand.

Consider airlines on the Web. The carriers would love to increase the minuscule share of tickets--less than 5% of the total--now sold online. I should be the perfect customer, since I like to pick flights from a list on the screen in front of me rather than from information given by an agent over the phone.

The Web sites are frustrating, though. Granted, the complexity of flight schedules and fares is a problem for all online ticketing. But in a common mistake of corporate Web sites, some airlines make the problem worse by forcing me to drill down through pages and pages before I can do anything useful. For example, before you can request any information on schedules from United Airlines (, you have to go through four slow-loading and very uninformative pages. (That's assuming you're already a registered user. If not, it's worse.) At least online travel agents Expedia ( and Travelocity ( let you start choosing flights on their home pages.

Hertz (HRZ) is another company that makes online transactions a lot harder than they have to be. I rent a lot of cars and almost always use Hertz No.1 Club Gold for its convenience. Reserving a car over the phone typically takes just a few minutes.

The Web version ( takes much longer, mostly because of some poor design choices. Someone at Hertz had the cute idea to adorn the reservation pages with a banner that mimics the lighted signboards on which customer names and car location numbers appear at No.1 Club airport facilities. Unfortunately, each letter in the display is a graphic, and the whole thing takes what seems like forever to load. Pleasant as it is to see my name up in lights on the Web page, I would rather get through the reservation process faster.

DRILLING DOWN. Things aren't helped by a complex form that I rarely succeed in filling out correctly on the first try. It requests redundant information--for example, both a flight number and an expected time of arrival. And it fails to use information that's already in my saved profile as a default for preferences such as car type. The result is that it is generally quicker and easier to reserve by phone. I'm sure it's more expensive for Hertz to have reservation agents take the calls.

Microsoft's (MSFT) main Web site ( illustrates some other basic difficulties that plague this infant medium. For one thing, I don't think any company with a vast and sprawling Web presence, such as IBM or Hewlett-Packard, has found a way to make navigating the site or finding material simple. Nor have they given their sites, which often grew as the result of independent efforts by separate business units, the feel of an integrated whole.

That said, has some problems all its own. Microsoft's site is what Web gurus call vertical: You usually have to drill down through several layers of pages to find what you are looking for. To make matters worse, Microsoft pages tend to load slowly, even on a fast connection. The result can be a frustrating experience.

Huge sites require good search tools, and here, too, Microsoft falls short. Search results often make it hard to find product information and impossible to locate files for downloading. The problem is worst in the online support area, which is the only way most consumers can get free Microsoft technical help. Five screens down from the home page, I finally was able to enter a question about my latest Windows crash. ''What is fatal exception 0E?'' I asked. The answer: ''The query results cannot be displayed.''

I picked these particular sites not because they are the worst, but because I know their shortcomings so well. The lessons for companies of any size are simple and obvious, though not always easy to implement. If you want to steer customers to your Web site, make online buying at least as easy as the alternatives. And if you want to delight customers, put yourself in their shoes, spend a lot of time looking for information on your site, and make sure the online experience is delightful--or at least helpful.

Questions? Comments? E-mail tech& or fax (202) 383-2125


TABLE: Rules for Business Web Sites

DO spend time on your own site--at the same access speed your customers use.

DO provide search tools that are first-rate.

DON'T make visitors burrow through multiple pages to find what they came for.

DON'T frustrate visitors with slow-to-load graphics.


Up Close and on Video

At $149, the HomeConnect PC Digital Camera from 3Com (408 326-5000 or costs more than twice as much as many rival computer videocameras. But if you need a versatile camera capable of technical work as well as simple videoconferencing and digital snapshots, the 3Com unit is well worth the extra cost.

The camera, which connects to a computer's USB port, features exceptionally good automatic exposure, color-balance control, and low-light ability. The combination gives good color rendition even in poor light.

One appealing feature is that the lens attaches with a standard 12-millimeter thread. This allows the camera to focus for extreme closeups. It also enables the use of other lenses designed for this standard mount. For example, Visual Imaging (, which designed the camera, also offers a kit including telephoto and wide-angle lenses for $59.99. The camera also features a standard quarter-inch threaded socket for attachment to standard tripods or mounting clamps.

The HomeConnect camera comes with software for use with Windows. However, a preliminary version of Macintosh software is available for free download from 3Com's Web site.



Digital Linguist

English may be the closest thing the world has to a universal language these days, but there are many occasions when it just isn't enough. So when you need le mot juste in Estonian or Thai, LINgo (800 697-4825 or offers a wide array of bilingual and multilingual electronic dictionaries.

For example, the $100 LINgo 26 handles 22 European and 4 Asian languages. Choose a language pair from the 190 possibilities. Then, type in one of the dictionary's 120,000 words or 3,000 common phrases in the source language, and a translation appears on the display. Other versions, such as the Middle Eastern or Pacifica (each $120), handle fewer words and fewer languages but add the ability to display words in different alphabets, including Cyrillic, Hebrew, Arabic, Thai, Japanese, and Korean.

One problem with phrase books and dictionaries, whether printed or electronic, is that they give you little help in pronouncing or understanding the words. The LINgo 6 Talk and 6 Talk II models ($130 each) will both display and speak translations from a repertoire of 36,000 words and 720 phrases. Both Talk programs handle English, German, and French. The 6 Talk program adds Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian, while 6 Talk II adds Russian, Turkish, and Hungarian.



Sign, Seal, and Deliver

Acrobat from Adobe Systems (800 833-6687 or has become the Internet's standard form for distribution of printable documents. And the newest version, Acrobat 4.0, places some powerful new tools in the hands of people who want to put high-quality typography on Web sites or distribute documents as E-mail attachments.

The most significant improvement in the new version probably is the ability to add digital signatures to files. This cryptographic technique not only guarantees the authenticity of a document but also can assure the recipient that the contents have not been tampered with since signing. Digital signatures already have binding legal force in several states and may soon gain federal recognition.

The new version of Acrobat also makes it significantly easier to convert Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files into Acrobat's Portable Document Format. And it enables the capture of Web pages--and even entire Web sites--within Acrobat documents.

Acrobat 4.0 retails for about $220, or approximately $90 as an upgrade from previous versions, and is available for Windows, Macintosh, and Unix. Acrobat Reader, which allows you to view and print, but not create, Acrobat documents, remains a free download.


Help Desk

Q : David P. Mooney of Wilmington, Del., asks: Why aren't laptop processors going as fast as the desktops? I mean, they make 600 MHz desktops. Why can't laptops go that fast, too?

A : In two words, batteries and heat. The processor is the most power-hungry piece of a computer. And all else being equal, faster speeds mean higher power consumption and more heat generated. Engineers have to balance laptop speed against the need for reasonable battery life and the difficulty of venting heat from the tight confines of the case.The fastest desktop chip sold by Intel today is the 600 MHz Pentium III, while the fastest mobile processor is a 400 MHz Pentium II. (The Pentium III is somewhat faster than the II at equal clock speeds.) This fall, Intel will ship the first mobile Pentium III, which is made using a new process that lowers power consumption. But speeds will continue to trail those of the fastest desktops by a third or more.

Intel also is introducing a new technology, code-named Geyserville, that will push laptops toward parity. Geyserville chips will run at full speed when a laptop is plugged into AC but throttle back when running on batteries to conserve power. This solves half the problem: The engineers still have to find a way to get rid of the high heat in full-power mode. This, laptop makers say, will probably preclude the use of Geyserville chips in the smallest and lightest notebooks.


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Untangle These Web Sites, Please

TABLE: Rules for Business Web Sites

Up Close and on Video

PHOTO: 3Com's HomeConnect Video Camera

Digital Linguist

PHOTO: The LINgo Talk Electronic Dictionary

Sign, Seal, and Deliver

Help Desk

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