When the medium is the message

Remember when everyone was really excited about the possibilities of dedicated on-line publishing? Overlooking problems like the fact that large images equal slow download time, the benefits were obvious – no paper, printing or distribution costs. The profits were less so: if you couldn’t charge for your product and couldn’t adequately profile your readership to tempt advertisers, how did you make money? No one knew, so the would-be moguls shuffled off sheepishly, stumped.

A decade on and technology has advanced so that streaming audio and video downloaded over an ISDN line can deliver whole songs and videos in seconds, opening up a huge area for on-line publishers. And advertisers too get something that print rivals can’t deliver: accurate records of individual page hits. All of which may go a long way towards explaining the success of London Web design group Helium 3’s on-line “monthly magazine” hq3.net (www.hq3.net) – due for launch on 1 February – which already records 400 000 impressions a month and numbers BA, Sony PlayStation, the ICA, and Apple among its advertisers.

The “magazine” tag isn’t strictly correct, but as co-founder Barry Chattington says: “At the moment it’s like a horseless carriage, which is what the car was called before somebody came up with the name car.” But a magazine is the closest thing, and Helium 3 has used the model in its research. For example, says Chattington: “A magazine’s optimum reading time is two hours, so that’s what we aimed for with hq3.net, although somebody did everything on the site and it took them five hours.”

The similarities continue with changing monthly content, selling ads against specific articles and pages, collaborations and commissions for and with writers, artists and photographers.

Initiated as a showcase project for Helium 3, the site breaks down into three areas: information, review and entertainment. The review section incorporates everything from gardening to exclusive pics from the Paris and Milan catwalk shows by photographer Chris Moore; the information section links users to local papers and TV stations in Scotland, England and France (with lots more to come); and entertainment, aimed at younger users, incorporates experimental music pieces Throwable Mixer and the Doppler Effect, which enable users to mix their own music from sound effects and samples. Games, puzzles, and even Helium 3’s two office cats, Mac (the colourful one) and PC (yes, the grey one), feature. Nothing like using all your resources.

While the content is eclectic and very impressive, the design is also special; it was shortlisted for a Best Design award in the Interactive BAFTAs (chairman of the sound category Tim Carrigan described it as “an interesting pointer to a future in which consumers… could enjoy a full audio-visual experience on the Web”) and the group’s aim to make the best use of “the creative application of technology” raises it above the morass of most websites.

“With a 45-strong staff we can keep abreast of developing and emerging technologies in different fields, and now companies behind that technology are offering us the chance to test their output,” says Chattington. Having said that, hq3.net was developed using industry standards: Shockwave and QuickTime.

Lorraine Barclay, its other co-founder, says version 2 “will be streaming to desktop, making it feel very different to using a browser”. The information section is also changing, with next month’s issue “looking and acting more like a search engine, with lots more images”, adds Barclay.

Neither she nor Chattington are too worried about competition from the likes of the dotmusic site or Hard Reality’s mag site Gspot. “There are millions of people on-line and millions of sites for them, and while there might be lots of sites covering parts of what we do, there’s nobody doing all of it,” says Barclay confidently.

Helium’s attitude to advertising gives it a head start: “I’ve always disliked banner advertising, so with hq3.net we’ve gone more with the TV model, giving our advertisers open space. It shows the agencies that live ads can work, and work well on the Web,” says Chattington. A good example is BA’s ad that loops while the page loads – which could be quite a while for users whose hardware isn’t as cutting-edge as Helium’s.

But Chattington doesn’t seem too bothered that an awful lot of home users won’t get hq3.net at its optimum – notably via an ISDN link. “Somewhere along the line you have to say ‘stuff it’ and leave the 386 users with their 28Kbps modem behind. You have to look forward,” he says.

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