Far from perfect

THE aptly-named Spyder, Internet correspondent at London listings mag Time Out, wrote in the 5-12 May edition about PERFECTOnline, DJ Paul Oakenfold’s new Internet venture.

The aptly-named Spyder, Internet correspondent at London listings mag Time Out, wrote in the 5-12 May edition about PERFECTOnline, DJ Paul Oakenfold’s new Internet venture.

Aimed at clubbers, it combines a free Internet service provider with clothes shopping, music reviews, news and chat. It’s what a marketeer would call a total brand experience. It’s young, it’s hip, it’s happening – but only if you’ve got the Flash plug-in installed on your browser.

In the past hour, I’ve had no trouble picking up and sending e-mail, checking the news headlines, looking up tonight’s TV and buying plane tickets from Go – even though I’m using someone else’s computer in a strange office. But I cannot get into PERFECTOnline.

You could argue that a hip young thing like PERFECTOnline needs the added excitement that Flash, in all its animated glory, can offer. Spyder certainly thought so: “As is increasingly the case with classy sites, you need to download Shockwave Flash software to appreciate the subtleties of these pages. Just click the auto-download icon and you’re in business,” he enthused. Or not, as was the case for me.

On my desk is a copy of the World Wide Web Consortium’s (WC3’s) unhip-sounding document, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, which advises information providers to design websites as simply as possible. That way, people without the most up-to-date software can still view most sites on the Internet.

Consider WC3’s guidelines alongside PERFECTOnline and you can appreciate the problems facing anyone involved in the specification and production of websites. The key words here are accessibility and universality.

WC3 says sites should also be accessible, via “checkpoints”, to those with visual disabilities. These functions have the added advantage that they can facilitate Web access via “mobile phones, hand-held devices or automobile-based PCs”, and “when connection speed is too slow to support viewing images or video”.

The question is not how well PERFECT-Online performs on the latest browsers, or even how it performs on some broken-down computer running Netscape 1.0. The real issue is how it copes with cutting-edge, or even as-yet unreleased technology (digital text, Web browsing on a PDA or your home telephone).

With e-mail already available on mobile phones, computing on the move looks like the place to be for the future. People will be crying out for the latest share prices, access to their office schedule and what’s on at the cinema. What is less likely is that they’ll be looking for extended animated sequences.

What are the solutions? If I access Oakie’s site and buy some happening clothes and tunes, my life is not going to be radically changed – the cool kids on my street will probably still laugh at me.

But there may be places where it’ll matter more – in the space where we become information haves or have-nots. Providing text alternatives to images, Flash movies, sound clips and so on will always extend your audience more effectively than instructions to “Click here to download the latest Flash plug-in”.

After half an hour’s wait – downloading the Flash installer and plug-in didn’t take that long, but the surreptitious installation under the watchful eyes of the office computer police did – I was ready to view PERFECTOnline in all its intended glory.

I download the page. The animation kicks in and…Êoh, fuck… loud music comes blaring out of the speakers. I’m panicking and fiddling with this unfamiliar machine. The sound is getting louder and louder.

By now, it is obvious to everyone in the office that whatever I am doing, it does not involve Excel spreadsheets or Word.

Sheepishly, I continue my exploration of the site, uncertain of what I’m missing. Does it actually need sound to make sense? Am I missing something? Spyder said this was worth visiting. He was so wrong.

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