Fourth International World Wide Web Conference Trip Report - Bebo White


During the week of December 11, I attended the Fourth International WWW Conference in Boston, MA. This conference was jointly sponsored by the WWW Consortium (W3C) and the MIT Laboratory For Computer Science. There were over 2000 attendees to this conference.

The conference program was divided into three parts. Monday, December 11 was devoted to workshops and tutorials (a report on the ones I attended is given below). Tuesday and Wednesday, December 12 and 13, contained the plenary sessions and presentations of submitted and invited papers. Thursday, December 14 was Developers Day which included extended presentations on selected technical topics. The program also included Poster Sessions and BOFs (Birds of a Feather sessions).

I was asked to be a member of the conference awards committee. This committee selected the best two workshops and papers in the conference program. Other committee members were Robert Cailliau (CERN, chair), Larry Masinter (Xerox), Corrinne Moore (Commercenet), Stu Weibel (OCLC), and Rick Rodgers (U.S. National Library of Medicine). As it turned out, I went to the two winning workshops. I'll describe them in Workshops and Presentations.

I have copies of the conference proceedings and tutorial notes which I am willing to circulate to anyone interested.


Designing and Maintaining a Highly Usable Site, Jakob Neilsen, Sun Microsystems

This very interesting workshop was based on case studies of two sites for Sun, the external one that is freely available on the Internet and in internal one available only to Sun employees. From the start it was obvious that Sun has a large commitment to usability and devotes substantial time and resources to it. One drawback of the session was the time spent describing the facilities in their usability laboratory. It is highly unlikely that very many attendees of the workshop have access to similar resources.

Neilsen's usability studies have resulted in three major findings. (These findings appear to be somewhat fundamental to the general study of human-computer interaction).

  1. People have very little patience for poorly designed WWW sites - "the more well-organized a page is, the more faith a reader will have in its information." Many of their test subjects told them that they would be out of a server, never to return, if they got too many server errors or "under construction" signs.
  2. Users don't want to scroll!
  3. Users don't want to read - reading speeds are more than 25% slower from computer screens than from paper. Therefore, authors should write 50% less. Users recklessly skip over any text that they deem to be fluff (e.g., welcome messages or introductory paragraphs) and scan for highlighted terms (e.g., hypertext links).

As a result of these findings, the Sun Website is very graphically and iconically-oriented. Neilsen described the design and review process for icon art which insures that readers understand their use and are not offended by their content. The category groupings used for icons on the home page were the result of a card sorting study. Sun employees in the usability lab (often there because they were told to participate) would group subject cards (representing information desired accessible from the home page) into categories. The results of these studies lead to the major category groups used on the Sun home page. A complete description of these study is available. Sun has also developed a Style Guide for Web Design.

Neilsen was awarded the 2nd place prize in the workshop category for this presentation.

Security, Authentication, and Privacy on the Web, Adam Cain, NCSA

Adam Cain is a dynamic and knowledgeable speaker on this subject, so this workshop was packed. (He had won the award for best workshop on the same subject at WWW3).

Cain describes Web security as consisting of four intertwined components:

  1. system security (integrity) - insuring that there are no security holes via software bugs;
  2. authentication mechanisms - consists of entities such as passwords, digital signatures, challenge-response, smartcards, etc. and data such as signed messages and data integrity checksums;
  3. access control/authorization systems - policies, protocols, object integrity, file permissions, access control lists, digital credentials;
  4. privacy technologies - encrypted channels/messages, dedicated links;

The issues surrounding system security were my primary motivation for attending this workshop given SLAC concerns regarding the security of CGI scripts. (This topic was one of my "action items" from the WWW Technical Committee). Unfortunately, it was the subject area that Cain concentrated the least on. Most of his examples and solutions were ones of which we are aware (from John Halperin). In that regard, his discussion would tend to reinforce many of the concerns which have been expressed in the WWW Technical Committee regarding system security.

The remainder of the workshop was very beneficial in that it served as an introduction, refresher, and/or overview to me of the other subject areas - authentication, access control, privacy technology, etc. Cain did provide a very good bibliography on the subject areas. The wo rkshop slides are available on the Web.

Adam Cain received the award for the best workshop at the conference.

Plenary Sessions

Bran Ferren, Imagineering, Vice President, Disney Corporation was the keynote speaker. The refreshing aspect of his talk was that it came from the perspective of a user. He also likes to view himself primarily as a storyteller. As a good keynoter should do, Ferren warned the attendees to maintain their objectivity, but suggested that no one in the room really has any clue as to the potential of this medium. Being a child of the 60's, Ferren made frequent references to the work of Marshall McLuhan.

Edward Bennett, the President and CEO of Prodigy Services spoke at one of the luncheon sessions. His specific message was that "if people want reliable information, good entertainment, etc. on the Internet and the Web, then they must be willing to pay for it."

Doug Engelbart was given a special award for his historical contributions which led to the development of the Web. This award came as a complete surprise to Engelbart who was an attendee at the conference. SoftQuad (the creators of HotMetal) gave every conference attendee a special edition of collected Engelbart writings.


The following are short descriptions of some of the presentations I attended. Anyone wishing additional information should talk to me and read the paper in the proceedings. I attended other presentations on behalf of the Awards Committee, not necessarily because the topic was of special interest to me.

One of the sessions I attended was on Boomerang, a dynamic HTML page reconfiguration system. A user accesses Boomerang via CGI. The user supplies a page name and a template, Boomerang fetches the requested page and uses the template to reconfigure it. The template is a sequence of string manipulation rules. These rules are written in a simple regular expression-based pattern matching language. With Boomerang, users can easily add navigational links, suppress images, redefine HTML tags, and reshape a page as desired. Since it uses CGI, it can also be used as a general form-handling script.

The Krakatoa Chronicle is a highly interactive, personalized newspaper on the Web. It is intended for Java-saavy Web browsers and is architecturally quite different from conventional Web-based newspapers. Its high interactivity and powerful personalization are the result of sending an interactive agent along with the text of the newspaper to operate within the user's browser. The agent keeps a network connection open to the Web server site to fetch resources dynamically, and for updating the user's personal profile as it collects feedback.

Alfred Hubler of UIUC gave a presentation on CyberProf which is described as "an intelligent human-computer interface for grading, creating, and presenting educational course materials." Students are able to solve course problems presented with text, graphics, animations, and sound on the Web and can receive instant feedback from "a sophisticated grading package which makes use of the latest complex systems data analysis tools to handle ambiguous input in an intelligent manner."

One of the most fascinating sessions was an invited paper presented by Kodak demonstrating the use of PhotoCD on the Web. Using a special browser, images in PhotoCD format can be downloaded at any resolution without pixelation. The images are delivered in a compressed format allowing files which would ordinarily be megabytes in size to be transmitted in 10's of kilobytes.


A DOE Webmasters BOF was organized by Nancy O'Grady of Oak Ridge. The major topic of business was to create an agenda of Web-related issues to be discussed at the next InterLab meeting (June '96 in Boulder, Colorado). There was an interesting mix of sites represented at this BOF - it is clear that SLAC and FermiLab have far less restricted use than some of the other sites. However, the following issues are held in common:

Nancy will be setting up a mailing list to further discuss these issues and the planning of the meeting.

A Macintosh BOF was organized by Nick Arnett of Verity. I went to this BOF in the hope that some of the Mac problems (e.g., Ghostscript) we have encountered would be addressed. However, the attendees were more interested in discussing the use of the WebStar server software and use of Frontier or AppleScript for CGIs.

Developers Day

Arthur van Hoff of Sun gave a comprehensive description of the development of Java and its current status. Since Java was a major topic at this conference, there was a great deal of interest in this talk even though it really did not say anything really new.

Mark Pesce gave a report on the status of VRML and a demonstration of the current products which support it. It appears that VRML is still sorely lacking in applications which can truly benefit from its use. While the demonstration was interesting, the content was still at the level often found on video games or CD-ROMs.

Jim Miller of the MIT-Laboratory for Computer Science described Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS). This system, which is currently being developed by an industry consortium headed by the W3C, supports the rating of Websites. For example, a parent would be able to configure a browser such that their child would only be able to look at sites which had been rated according to the motion picture ratings (G, PG, etc.) and indicate that content with specific ratings not be downloaded. Rating systems could be designed by an organization. This presentation was not very well received by the audience not due to Miller's delivery, but due to its content.

David Raggett of HP presented an HTML 3.0 update. There is presently a draft out for public review which has generated considerable interest. The next draft is expected in the 2nd quarter of 1996.

Hakon Lie conducted a presentation of demonstration on the usage of "Style Sheets." Style sheets are supported by several browsers including Arena (from W3C), Chameleon, and one of the emacs-based browsers. I came away from this presentation convinced that style sheets are the only way to control page presentation on the Web. After some of the demonstrations, the Netscape extensions for controlling background, background color, and fonts look quite amateurish. The ultimate goal is to have browsers which are fully SGML style sheet compliant.


The next conference (WWW5) is scheduled for Paris May 6-11,1996. After the Paris conference, the conference will be held annually rather than every six months. It will also alternate between the United States and Europe.

A major topic of conversation at the conference was the absence of Netscape either as an exhibitor or in the attendee list. It was explained that Netscape had participated at a Mecklermedia- sponsored conference in Boston several weeks prior to this conference and was therefore unable to commit the resources. Other attendees had other theories.

Kluwer Academic Publishing announced my book, HTML and the Art of Authoring for the World Wide Web at the conference. The book is being released in February, but is being offered at a pre-publication price of $39.95. Additional information can be obtained by sending e-mail to Kluwer or visiting the Kluwer website.

Conclusions and Observations