|clement mok||home | on record | career | musings|
Founder & Chief Creative Officer
Redwood City, CA
During the early period of the Internet boom, design development tools for building websites were limited. Tools then, required designers to learn HTML coding and programming. In 1995, I had an opportunity to develop a website authoring tool for the "technically challenged" — an application that works and behaves like desktop publishing software. This is a story about being a participant of a Silicon Valley start-up from its founding and the lessons I've learned.
Founded in November 1995, NetObjects, Inc. was initially a privately held company funded by IBM, Norwest Venture Capital, Venrock Associates and other private investors. The company brought together a unique fusion of design, technology and business expertise derived from the experience of its founders at Rae Technology Inc., a developer of PIM (personal information management) applications, and Studio Archetype, an identity and information architecture consulting firm.
The company's initial products were received by reviewers and customers with "product-of-the-year" accolades. For a period of time between 1996 and 1997, NetObject's web authoring application, Fusion was the cross-platform design and development tool of choice.
Despite these early successes, the company invested heavily in new product development and built technical infrastructure to support a fickle customer base. It was expensive to keep pace and maintain leadership in an emerging product category. To carve out its market share, NetObjects went public in 1999 to seek out working capital. With software giants like Microsoft, Adobe and Macromedia vying for this same market, it was inevitable NetObjects had to sell its business and closed its doors in 2001. It was a good run while it lasted
The journey taught me about supply-chain management and the rigorous discipline required to design, build and market software. The success of the initial products validated my believe that "design" can play an important role in shaping and guiding how people interacts with technology. The experience also taught me how to become a better designer because I now have experienced making the difficult business calls.
Background on Company
In 1995, Studio Archetype was working on the user interface design of a Wells Fargo on-line banking project. Rae Technology was brought in to prototype this electronic commerce application. Using a proprietary programming language based on an object-architecture model, SOLO; Rae Technology produced a working client software prototype literally in six weeks. For those who know anything about writing software applications, this was unheard of. During this period the Mosaic browser was just introduced; it was apparent the Internet equation needed to be addressed immediately. Wells Fargo approached Rae and asked if they could prototype the same banking application for the web using SOLO (Structure Of Linked Objects).
SOLO is based on a concept that any pieces of data must accommodate the requirement of navigation and contextual inheritance in a database environment. In layman terms, it means that every piece of text, graphics and page is embedded with an implicit navigation framework based on the groupings or order in which the items are organized. In other words, a picture, which is a data object, placed in this programming environment will automatically know the concept of 'next' and 'previous' without having to write an explicit line of code. This simplifies the coding process. Since the information and business logic organization models were already completed for the client-software, converting this to a web application was simply a recompilation of the codes for a different delivery platform. The project was completed within four weeks and we were stunned as to how simple it was. This was an important validation point illustrating the portability of our technology for cross-platform development.
It wasn't long before we realized that SOLO, a technology based on information organization models, could be adapted and modified for an application to build web sites. A prototype was developed immediately and soon after a business plan was developed to raise venture funding. NetObjects was founded.
In any effort to develop software products, it's important to understand the needs of the customers — not just product features but also an understanding of how they work. A real advantage in this pursuit is having the 24 Hours in Cyberspace event and Studio Archetype to draw on for real-world experience. What sets NetObjects Fusion apart from all other Internet authoring software is its focus on the user-model. It's about making the possible or the impossible useable and relevant. The product is about understanding the trauma or the challenge the web site developer encounters in building a web site.
The nature of the challenge is that web sites continue to evolve in size, depth and sophistication both graphically as well as functionally. It's too tedious, and it takes too much time and money to build a web site. Web site authoring tools are too limiting. Most are glorified word processing applications. They are either page-based or not open enough to support rapidly changing technology. To create breakthrough site-building products requires a new model. Retrofitting old technologies or products that were built for a different paradigm or medium will not deliver radical gains in ease-of-use.
The tool has to be scaleable to support growing complex web sites. It has to provide explicit support for the information design that lets the author structure the information site-wide. It has to provide an intuitive graphical user interface that does away with complexity while providing access to sophisticated functionality. It has to support all major standards and platforms. It has to support the depth needed for advance users and usage. And most importantly, it has to automate and simplify the process of designing, authoring, publishing and updating web site.
Ambitious goals required unconventional strategy and tactics. It required out-of-the-box thinking and the ability to focus. Many of the key features of the product came about just by watching and interviewing hard-core web site builders.
The notion of an application that would take into account a site structure evolved out of the mapping practice Studio Archetype developed to communicate the breadth and the depth of a complete site to their clients. The idea of site view came from the belief that the user should be able to look at the whole site, just like a presentation software package can look at the whole presentation, as opposed to doing it in MacDraw page-by-page.
Pixel-level control and WYSIWYG requirements were the basis for the page-layout capabilities of NetObjects Fusion. Editing web pages in enhanced word processing-like applications was at best a dysfunctional model for serious web site building. It needed to be as sophisticated as the layout functionality of Page-Maker, Quark XPress or Macromedia's Director.
Another area of need NetObjects focused on was to deal with the 'graphically-challenged' and 'technically-challenged' users. Most web site developers do not have either a graphic design or engineering degree. Providing a library of professionally designed and programmed web sites eliminates the intimidation threshold inherent with any web building effort.
NetObjects Fusion 1.0 for Windows was launched in the summer of 1995 to incredible critical acclaim, including an InfoWorld review, which cited the cons for this product as insignificant. This was a big deal! It won numerous awards and the product went on to win the hearts of techno-neophytes as opposed to technical innovators for its customer base. NetObjects Fusion had both the breadth and depth to become a mainstream product. The Macintosh version was launched in November of 1995. Four months after the initial release, NetObjects Fusion 2.0 for Windows was released. In addition to designers and developers who have purchased the product, business users buy 80% of current purchases directly building their own web sites.
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