Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 14: December 2004

Trends & Quick Takes

Visitors: The Great Unknown

How much does your website get used? Do you have any real idea? It’s a fairly complex question, depending heavily on your definition of terms like “used,” “visitors,” “sessions” and the like. If you’re doing your own metrics, the answers may depend on your purpose. If you want to impress a funding agency or your friends and competitors, you’ll use measures (page hits, for example) that result in very high numbers. Otherwise, you’ll look for a set of lower numbers that seem to mean something. And you probably won’t be all that certain of the “real” numbers or what they mean.

According to Adam L. Peneberg’s October 6, 2004 story at Wired News, the big guys aren’t in much better shape. Two firms, Nielsen/NetRatings and comScore Media Metrix, claim to say which websites get the most visitors. Both do so using panels of web surfers (37,000 people for Nielsen, 1.5 million for comScore) who run monitoring software in return for various incentives.

But the numbers don’t seem to agree very well. Wired News itself had 1.87 million visitors in June 2004, if you believe Nielsen—or 1.096 million if you believe Media Metrix. “Just under two million” and “just over one million” aren’t roughly the same numbers any way you look at them. (Wired News thinks it gets more visitors than Nielsen’s number.)

How’s this for consistency? CNET’s news sites scored 1.96 million visitors in April (according to Nielsen), 4.52 million in May, and 1.86 million in June. The story points out some of the problems, ones acutely familiar to webmasters who know libraries. If you’re looking at unique visitors, you get it wrong on the high side by counting the same person twice (at home and at work)—but a lot wronger on the low side when hundreds of people use the same PC at a library or cybercafe, and you’re counting a single IP address.

Web sites that aren’t in the A list but have fairly high page ranks—such as the Cites & Insights home page—have different problems. Hits really don’t mean much at all, because some search-engine spiders are hyperactive. I’ve counted Google’s spider hitting thirty times a day—for a site that typically changes content roughly once every four weeks.

I only pay attention to “unique downloads” of the issues themselves. Is that number too low? Is it too high? I have no idea—but, apparently, neither do sites with millions of visitors.

Does Video Over Broadband Work?

I was a little surprised by this September 29 piece from Vint Cerf at “Broadband dreams and multicast ‘beams.’” One of the internet’s true pioneers, Cerf knows his stuff. He recounts the claim of technology pundits on how you should watch movies with your family: “Fire up your home PC, download a movie (from a vast, legal online library of movies) and watch it via your homeless network on your big-screen TV.” But that’s not what happens. Watching movies from the internet requires time, planning, and a suitable connection. It can take too long to download a complete movie “and when the movie arrives, it often does not look as good on the DVD version.”

What’s the problem? Unfortunately, the Internet is not ready to be a true entertainment medium. It cannot provide the instant gratification and quality consumers have come to expect from DVDs—once you have the DVD, that is. As a result of its architecture, the Internet cannot cater to a vast number of people simultaneously asking for large files such as movies.

The next paragraph is the shocker. Cerf says that, at any given moment, a broadband provider may only make about 20 kilobits per second available to each subscriber—the 1MB rate is the aggregate over 50 subscribers. The fast speed claim is based on almost all subscribers just downloading web pages and checking eBay auctions and the like. “If you started using the network to download movies—and your neighbors did, too—your ISP would have one-fiftieth of the bandwidth required. This would make downloads slow and painful… And forget about using the Internet to download the high-definition movies that Hollywood will be introducing in the near future: These high-def movie files require five times the data of current DVDs.”

Cerf touts a “solution” of sorts—MovieBeam, which uses a proprietary network (not the internet) to broadcast 10 movies a week using the “unused television broadcast spectrum” (presumably the vertical blanking interval) to a receiver, which stores 100 movies at any given time. As Cerf points out, even with MovieBeam’s high compression (1GB for a DVD-equivalent, which is pushing it), using the internet and serving, say, a million subscribers would mean sending 10 petabytes of traffic just for that service, or about 15% of total U.S. internet traffic.

The problem with MovieBeam is that it’s a hits-only solution: 100 movies, with 10 new ones a week. If MovieBeam is the answer, then the “celestial jukebox” is like top 40 radio, and that’s sad. Cerf also mentions multicast as a possibility, but doesn’t explain enough to see how that solves the problem.

What Is Wrong With You People?

Well, not you people. I’m sure every Cites & Insights reader knows that any PC with any connection to the internet—even a dial-up connection—must have an active firewall as well as full-time virus software updated at least weekly. If you don’t, do you sometimes wonder why your computer seems to be slowing down? Have you done a spyware scan?

I was appalled to read the results of a study of home PCs done by AOL and the National Cyber Security Alliance, who sent technicians to 329 homes to inspect the computers. 60% of the users didn’t know a firewall from antivirus software. Two-thirds didn’t have firewalls. 85% had antivirus software, but two-thirds hadn’t done an update within the week.

20% had an active virus on their system. 80% of the machines had spyware running—but 90% of the users had no idea there might be a problem.

Ad-aware: free. Spybot Search & Destroy: also free. The free Zone Alarm. Norton Personal Firewall. Norton Antivirus—or, for that matter, a free antivirus program. Or let your machine be used to attack other machines and spread spam even further, while taking most of the CPU power you’re paying for. It’s your choice.

Archos Revisited

I mentioned the Archos AV400 Pocket Video Recorder in October’s Interesting & Peculiar Products. A half-page writeup in the September 2004 Computer Shopper justifies a followup note—and as you’d expect in the “Gear” section of Computer Shopper, it’s breathlessly positive: “Get ready to revolutionize your relationship with portable entertainment in a big way.” The Archos “promises to add tons of fun to your life on the go.” It’s still $550 for a 20GB unit, $800 for an 80GB unit; the screen still displays 320x240 (although this writeup expands the screen to 3.8"); but now it’s even better. Somehow, “you can use the AV400 to view MPEG-4 movies at near-DVD quality (704x480 pixels at 30 frames per second)” and you can record MPEG-4 videos (512x384 pixels at 30 frames per second) through a composite line-in jack. I do want to see how you view 704x480 images on a 320x240 display. If the answer is “by throwing away 75% of the pixels,” well, what’s the point of all that resolution? One other note: Whenever someone calls MPEG4 “near-DVD quality,” think about 68k MP3 as “near-CD quality.” Heck, looked at the right way, Mountain View is “near” Los Angeles.

RFID and Browsing

I don’t plan to discuss RFID in detail (although a project I’m working on does discuss policy issues). Enough other, more knowledgeable library people are doing that. But I couldn’t resist an October 18 item by Alorie Glbert: “RFID, coming to a library near you.” It quotes a consultant calling libraries a “wonderful test-bed in which to work through the issues of RFID because they have such a profound concern about the rights of their patrons.” Are you ready to be a testbed for privacy issues?

Then it gets strange, with notes from Vinod Chachra of VTLS, which has transformed itself from its Virginia Tech roots to “Visionary Technology in Library Solutions.” Vinod loves RFID—but also suggests that libraries add RFID chips to library cards, so “patrons don’t even have to remove them from their wallets in order to check out.” Which also means surreptitious RFID scanners can immediately associate the person with the books, for those who are concerned about privacy issues.

Here’s the truly strange suggestion from Chachra: “He envisions a day when libraries completely do away with the time-tested Dewey Decimal classification system, opting instead for a sort of organized chaos governed by the vigilant and unblinking eye of RFID.” No subject arrangement: Just shove books on any convenient shelf, using the RFID network to find it. As for readers who are accustomed to looking up one book on a topic, then going to the shelves to find similar books that may be more interesting? Well, what’s high-tech about that? How would your library’s users feel about randomly arranged shelves?

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 14, Whole Issue 56, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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