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Shovelware Redux?

Jack Bellis, December 28, 2006

Synopsis: Most web pundits, and I'm among them, dislike the practice of taking a PDF or other document that's formatted for paper and uploading it either in whole or part without changing it to HTML, complete with all manners of web navigation. But in my recent experience with a PDF viewing engine, a "shovelware" site was the most powerful shopping tool by a wide margin.

Another perennial controversy, is shovelware reborn or just a great zombie? (Shovelware is the practice of taking documents that are formatted for paper, or more precisely, authored in a tool other than an HTML/hyperlinking tool, and uploading them to the web without doing significant web authoring.)

I was shopping for bandsaw blades and was struck by just how lacking the web seemed to be at hierarchical access. In other words, I could only find isolated product info without links to parent categories from which to browse. For bandsaw blades, this meant that I could easily find 6 teeth-per-inch but couldn't find 18... because I couldn't find group pages with the whole family of products. Presumably the consumer goods companies (Lands End, REI) have long-since fixed this sort of weakness, but industrial goods are still in the dark ages of 1996.

Then I happened upon J and L, and without knowing it ended up looking at a page in their Virtual Catalog. Here's a screen capture and link: Bandsaw Blades page in their Virtual Catalog

... or click Virtual catalog, example, "Jump to" page 433.

This interface was perfectly efficient—no extra actions whatsoever—for me to find my needle in a haystack. And it has typical "desktop" tools: bookmarks, notes, highlights, etc. Most importantly, it had 1) huge information density and 2) unparalleled hierarchical navigation compared to all but the best pureplay HTML sites.

Yes, it's predicated on high bandwidth and high resolution, Flash 9, and a PDF-shovelware engine behind the scenes ( In fact, as soon as my 9-yr old bounced me to our #2 computer (so she could play ClubPenguin), the Virtual Catalog slowed to a virtual craw. But on the modern platform, I had 10 times the power.

Defining the precise issue isn't so simple. Is the issue simply that old-world industries haven't converted to a state where coded data (XML?) is their master copy of the data, or does the "formatted-for-paper" layout have so many values that it won't die anytime soon? Maybe it's just a convergence not of apps, but of technology and payoff... resolution and bandwidth can now display the information density that catalogs have long offered? Whether the authoring is done in Quark or XHTML might now be immaterial to users? When using J&L, I sure don't feel like I'm using a PDF with its awkward interface and tradeoffs.

After my first edit of this article, and before I uploaded it, I got a hardcopy of the J&L catalog in the mail. When I picked up the package off my doorstep, I thought they had mistakenly shipped me someone else's load of cast iron... it is a monstrous 2000 page phonebook... a complete education of the machine tool industry, just right for someone like me with a hundred hobbies.

There's no answer to the shovelware mystery except time. But eventually all data will exist first and foremost in databases, from which it will be published.

"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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