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
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
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
In other words, I could only find isolated product
info without links to parent categories from which
For bandsaw blades, this meant that I could easily
find 6 teeth-per-inch but couldn't find 18... because
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 Industrial.com, 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
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
times the power.
Defining the precise issue isn't so simple. Is the issue
simply that old-world industries haven't converted to
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
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.